BSO’s curious program, Salerno-Sonnenberg’s dazzling Tchaikovsky

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
Washington Post

By Joe Banno

One has to question the logic of pairing Kevin Puts’s engaging yet unapologetically retro 2007 work, Symphony No. 4 (“From Mission San Juan Bautista”), with Stravinsky’s evergreen shocker “The Rite of Spring.” But that is what conductor Marin Alsop did at the Baltimore Symphony’s Strathmore Hall concert Saturday.

For all of Puts’s individual touches — a string threnody with chapel-like reverberation built into the score, evocative paraphrases of Mutsun Indian melodies — his music speaks the language of Copland, Barber and Bernstein and sounds far more reactionary than the Stravinsky, nearly 100 years older.

As it happened, Alsop created more tension and personal engagement in the Puts symphony than in a reading of the “Rite” that alternated pulverizing climactic moments with long stretches of lower-voltage playing, where a sluggish pulse and finicky articulation robbed the music of its power and dazzle.

Power and dazzle are violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg’s calling cards. Fans of this idiosyncratic musician know what to expect from her stage comportment, and at Saturday’s performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, the flying mop of hair, stamping, grimacing, tough-girl posturing and mischievous winks to the concertmaster were all present. Also present was some of the most rhapsodic, emotive and technically fluent playing you can expect to hear.

Others may deliver more poised and better-manicured Tchaikovsky, but her earthy trenchancy of attack, achingly tender treatment of melodic material and unspeakably gorgeous voicing of upper-string harmonics were something altogether special. The audience responded with a standing ovation after the first movement — a rarity, but one that, in this case, was deserved.