Marin Alsop's downtown CSO debut showcases superlative music authority

Marin Alsop
Chicago Tribune

The curious fact that more than 13 years had to elapse between Marin Alsop's podium debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, at Ravinia, and her CSO subscription series debut on Friday night no doubt had as much to do with the byzantine internal politics of Orchestra Hall as scheduling problems.

In any case, Alsop was decidedly ready for her close-up.

The energy and assurance with which she steered the CSO musicians through a cannily devised program said a great deal about why she ranks as one of America's most important conductors — let's stop trotting out the term "woman conductor," shall we? — and why she is so respected in Europe and South America as well. From all reports, she has revitalized the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra during her eight seasons as music director, a successful match borne out by the orchestra's renewing her contract through 2020-21.

Like her famous mentor, Leonard Bernstein, Alsop can be a dervish on the podium when the music is fast, busy and highly charged. But she is her own musician in terms of considered emotional response and the way she conveys intensity of feeling to her players. There was no letup in such intensity on Friday, even when the tempo slowed and the volume level dropped.

American music has long been the cornerstone of Alsop's repertory. She devoted the first half of her program to familiar and less familiar works by two emblematic American composers, George Gershwin and Samuel Barber, adding a recent piece by former CSO resident composer Anna Clyne, who, although born in Britain, has lived primarily in the U.S. since 2002.

Alsop had premiered Clyne's brief "Masquerade" at the 2013 Last Night of the Proms in London. Its exuberant brio made it an ideal curtain raiser, the swirling sounds eventually coalescing into a quotation of an old English drinking song, complete with rhythmic hiccups.

Pianist Jon Kimura Parker reacts Nov. 27, 2015, at the completion of a performance of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with Marin Alsop, right, conducting, in Chicago. (Brian Nguyen / Chicago Tribune) 

The conductor's recordings of the complete Barber orchestral works for the Naxos label reveal her as one of the composer's most eloquent champions. Her sensitively shaped, deeply felt reading of Barber's "Second Essay for Orchestra" returned to the CSO repertory one of the finest American orchestral scores of the 1940s, and "brava" to her for that.

Alsop got her feel for jazz, and for Gershwin's music in general, early in her career when she operated her own swing band, so the idiomatic ease with which she had the CSO musicians tugging at the jazzy rhythms of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" came as no surprise. Too bad John Bruce Yeh's opening clarinet glissando stumbled just before reaching its apex.

Pianist Jon Kimura Parker, like Alsop new to the downtown series, tore through the faster portions of the piece with a rakish virtuosity in keeping with the teal-blue shirt he wore under his dark suit. Those portions felt a bit more driven than they needed to be (although he played them impeccably), but the improvisatory freedom he brought to the cadenza and the famous main theme could not have been truer to the Gershwin spirit.

Parker continued in the same high-energy, jazz piano vein with his solo encore, the bouncy "Blues Etude" by his late, great fellow Canadian, Oscar Peterson.

Dvorak's Symphony No. 7, which followed after intermission, returned the audience to an area of the 19th-century orchestral repertory in which Alsop particularly excels. She brought out the dark, Brahmsian drama of this masterpiece, firmly maintaining linear tension and drive without slighting lyrical expansion. The entire work passed in a concentrated sweep of controlled power and caring exposition of instrumental detail. The orchestra gave of its considerable best to Alsop. May it invite her back, and soon.

Read the rest of the review here