Review: Buoyant Baltimore Symphony bedazzles a Berkeley crowd

03.31.12
Marin Alsop, Colin Currie
San Jose Mercury News

By Georgia Rowe

 

Amid considerable fanfare -- two fanfares, to be exact -- the Baltimore Symphony arrived in Berkeley Friday night to perform the first of two programs at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus.

Presented by Cal Performances, Friday's presentation of works by Copland, Prokofiev, Joan Tower and Jennifer Higdon launched a two-day residency by the venerable East Coast ensemble under music director Marin Alsop (a second program, scheduled for Saturday night, features Richard Einhorn's "Voices of Light," accompanying a screening of Carl Dreyer's 1928 silent film, "The Passion of Joan of Arc.") Bay Area audiences are acquainted with Alsop as the adventurous music director of the annual Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, based in Santa Cruz. But her work in Baltimore -- where she became music director in 2007, making her the first woman to head a major American orchestra -- has often taken a more traditional path.

If anyone was wondering which music Alsop would favor at Friday's concert, the answer was a little of both. To demonstrate the orchestra's strengths in the standard repertoire, she conducted Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major. Contemporary works were represented in Tower's "Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman," and Higdon's Percussion Concerto.

The fanfares came first. Built on broad, forthright (and easily recognizable) statements, Copland's 1942 "Fanfare" is a favorite with  orchestras everywhere. Alsop led a shapely performance and followed it with Tower's 1987 tribute piece, which uses the same array of brass and percussion in a restless, more insistent framework. As played by the Baltimore musicians, the contrasts were striking.

Higdon's splashy Percussion Concerto came next, in a big, go-for-broke performance featuring Colin Currie as soloist. Higdon composed the 2004 score for the Scottish percussionist, giving him a huge battery of instruments to work with: marimbas, vibraphone, wood blocks, gongs, trap drums and congas are all featured in the 40-minute work.

Friday's performance began quietly, with Currie playing subdued chords on the marimba; the instrument's sound was rich and low. The percussion section entered next -- Higdon sets up a delightful tag-team effect between the soloist and the section players -- with the rest of the orchestra following close behind. As the sound grew larger, denser, Currie moved to higher-pitched instruments -- a smaller marimba, pieces made of metal and wood, and drums played with sticks.

As the concerto proceeds, Higdon, a Pulitzer Prize winner, builds a vibrant atmosphere, with the strings creating shaded textures, the horns contributing bright lines and the woodwinds intermittently emerging above the fray. The music roiled and flared, and Currie's performance grew increasingly energetic; a serene song for xylophone and celesta cooled the temperature a bit, but the work surged again with a riotous cadenza and an outsized finale. Alsop, who knows the score well -- she conducted it at Cabrillo a few seasons back, and has recorded it with the London Philharmonic -- returned to it Friday with impressive focus and brio. Currie distinguished himself throughout, and Higdon joined the conductor and her soloist onstage to an enthusiastic ovation.

After intermission, Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony also received a dynamic performance. Alsop introduced the first movement's weighty blocks of sound in a firm, well-paced rhythmic flow; the woodwinds were outstanding here, both in the principal theme for flutes and bassoon, and the second theme for flute and oboe. But there was fine playing throughout the orchestra. The violins voiced with warmth and definition, the dusky low strings sang, and the horns played with a crisp, assertive edge.

Alsop got excellent results in the scherzo as well; there's something wonderfully modern about this music, and the conductor led a brisk, breezy performance. She emphasized the Adagio's lyrical qualities without sacrificing its brooding themes. The finale was marvelous -- under Alsop's direction, as edgy and ebullient as any new music.

The conductor and her orchestra returned for a single encore: Borodin's vivacious "Polovtsian Dances.