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Baltimore Symphony Battle of the Brass

March 30, 2012

Cal Performances

The Baltimore Symphony and its music director, Marin Alsop, opened the first day of its miniresidency with Cal Performances in Berkeley Friday night with a well-rehearsed and well-rounded program of substantial works by Sergei Prokofiev and Jennifer Higdon. With a budget of about $25 million, a 52-week season, and a well-regarded purpose-built concert hall, the Baltimore Symphony has long stood as a beacon of civic pride in a city long struggling with population loss in a postindustrial economy. Friday’s concert revealed an orchestra capable of matching the standard of any number of full-time American ensembles, as well as a refreshing commitment by the artistic leadership to quality new American music.

Marin AlsopWinsome Scottish percussionist Colin Currie joined the orchestra to perform Jennifer Higdon’s percussion concerto, which they recorded in 2010. Higdon’s work follows a recognizably classical form with three distinct movements (fast-slow-fast), which keeps the work grounded and provides some sense of form. In spite of the rhythmic nature of percussion, the work ticked along in quarter notes, with drum repetition and tonal color driving the work ahead rather than rhythmic interplay. Much of Higdon’s work is overscored, with too much doubling muddying the midranges. When she lightened the scoring in the chimey metallic sounds of the second movement, the work breathed easier, though it occasionally turned a bit New Age. The finale was an audience pleaser, and Currie reveled in the climactic cadenza for rock drum set.

Following the intermission came Prokoviev’s classic Fifth Symphony, from 1944, which Alsop conducted, from memory, in a expressive yet focused performance. As is expected with tour programs, the symphony was exceptionally well-rehearsed, making for a tight reading. Like many wartime symphonies, the work hints at things greater than just music. Prokofiev’s “wrong note” pianistic style has never seemed very symphonic to me (he left the orchestration to students), but Alsop took great pains to delineate the work’s counterpoint.

The orchestra’s violins shone throughout the symphony, led by an exceptionally musical concertmaster. If body language gives any indication of phrasing, Concertmaster Jonathan Carney had internalized nearly every nuance of Prokofiev’s lines. Also audible was the section’s lush, coordinated vibrato — a legacy of the Baltimore Symphony’s previous music director, Yuri Temirkanov, one of the finest conductors of strings I know.

Friday’s concert revealed an orchestra capable of matching the standard of any number of full-time American ensembles.

The concert opened with two fanfares for brass battling each other: Aaron Copland’s familiar Fanfare for the Common Man and Joan Tower’s 1987 Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, which has become something of a repertory item. The brass sounded distant in Zellerbach’s acoustic, which favors players closer to the edge of the stage, and the trumpet’s crack when opening the concert was quickly rectified.

An Uncommon Woman Is No Big Deal

Growing up in relatively liberal cities in California and having long worked with a number of good (and not so good) women conductors, I took no notice of Alsop’s gender, which is why I was taken aback when I heard an audience member comment “she wears the pants quite well.” Ideally, the subject of women conductors should not be something to note in a review; still, the program notes and Alsop’s programming invited, and even demanded, consideration of the subject. After all, one fanfare would have been enough, and either Copland’s “man fanfare” or Tower’s “woman fanfare” was superfluous. I preferred Tower’s, merely because it was fresh to me and seemed more substantial.

The orchestra’s violins shone throughout the symphony, led by an exceptionally musical concertmaster.

Twelve years ago, I participated in a month-long conducting workshop in South Carolina, and one of the participants asked me over lunch whether I had to “deal with many fags in San Francisco.” That person now conducts children and family concerts for a major orchestra in a liberal city. Another participant, the principal timpanist in one of the largest American orchestras, spent an interminable evening in the break room decrying at length how insulted he felt that one of the conducting teachers was a women and claiming “they” were taking over the business. Still another participant who sat on the board of a chamber orchestra engaged in a music director search asked me whether a woman conductor with the New York City Ballet could “really handle concerts.”

This type of idiocy does persist in professional orchestras, and I have no doubt Alsop has had to “deal with” all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle nonsense; therefore, I do not begrudge her for her activism. Part of the problem is the financial structure of orchestras in America, where conductors are hired at will by musically ignorant boards and are evaluated on their fund-raising kowtow and charm. That the Baltimore Symphony and Alsop have managed to overcome this needless prejudice in the quest to produce artistically and socially valid work, as displayed on Friday night, makes their achievement even stronger.

Thomas Busse, www.tbusse.com, is a professional tenor.