Saturday, April 29, 2017

Rachmaninoff at the Meyerhoff

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Conductor Marin Alsop salutes her orchestra after a stunning performance of the Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2 last night at the Meyerhoff

I journeyed up the road Baltimore last night (well, crawled might be a better word, as it was a Friday on the Capital Beltway and I-95 - better planning in order next time - but well worth the 2-1/2 hour slog!) to hear Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra perform one of my favorite works of Rachmaninoff, the Symphony No.2, which also happens to be one of my favorite symphonies, period.

When one loves a work as much as I do this symphony, it is difficult indeed to have just one favorite performance, conductor, orchestra, or recording. I’ve always thought Andre Previn and Eugene Ormandy have both made this expansive romantic symphony their own in definitive recordings, but there are so many others in my collection of CDs and vinyl, which I have enjoyed over the years. Oddly, for a work I so love, live performances have not numbered all that many, but I’d like to add Ms. Alsop to a list of conductors who I feel have made the symphony their own.

If this happens to be one of your favorite symphonies too, let me suggest – no, urge – that you go online at and reserve a seat at Strathmore this evening at 8 or at the Meyerhoff tomorrow afternoon at 3. I think you’ll be glad you did.

Especially when it's superbly played Rachmaninoff #2!
Rachmaninoff No. 2 is a long symphony, running close to an hour. Mere minutes into the first movement, as Ms. Alsop led her orchestra, I suspected we were in for one hell of a ride. As the movement transitioned from brooding to Allegro moderato, I knew I’d been right. And especially as the Allegro molto second movement began, well this Rachmaninoff lover must have been grinning like the Cheshire Cat.

As Cary Grant says in “North by Northwest” (if in an entirely different context!), “What a performance!”

As the last movement built to its magnificent and affirmative climax, I didn’t want it to end.

Brava Maestra Alsop! Bravo BSO!

This is a concert I’ll remember with unalloyed joy and appreciation.

I was not aware of this until reading the program notes of the concert I attended earlier this month, but Ms. Alsop is a protégé of Leonard Bernstein. It made perfect sense as I listened to her talk about Rimsky Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” last time at the “Off the Cuff” concert, as well as the way she engages her audience in discussing a piece of music.

Like Bernstein, she is a kinetic and emotive conductor. And while I love many of Bernstein’s recordings, thankfully, unlike Bernstein, her facial expressions do not suggest excessive Sturm und Drang (or the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition!). Her love of – and respect for – the music she conducts is nothing less than genuine. Beyond that, a good descriptor would be “unassumingly eloquent.”

From my perch above the stage in a cozy three chair terrace box, I could really appreciate how Ms. Alsop communicates with her musicians in each section of the orchestra. It is nothing less than a warm and sincere love affair, both with her orchestra and the music she conducts.

Finding my sweet spot at the Meyerhoff…

I mentioned in a previous post that I planned to sample the acoustics and views from other locations in the invitingly modern concert hall of the Meyerhoff. Assuming good acoustics, I’ve always enjoyed a high and close-in view of the orchestra. It allows me to visually connect the sounds with the musicians in each section of the ensemble. This time, I think I struck gold – a front terrace box on the left side, way up front.

Experiencing the Rachmaninoff No.2 as conducted by Marin Alsop from this high and cozy spot in the Meyerhoff, and watching her interact with the musicians, was nothing less than sublime.

The program also includes two choral works in which the excellent University of Maryland Chorus, directed by Edward Maclary, joined the BSO. It opened with Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s “Credo,” receiving its BSO premiere. It is described as a “merging of the worlds of love and hate to offer healing.” I’m not at all sure that, on first hearing, it did either for me. Like the 2-1/2 hour Interstate slog, though, it was to be endured, knowing the affirmative joys of Rach #2 lay ahead. Oh, yes, it is relatively … short.

More to my liking, the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms, which gave the orchestra and this fine chorus the chance to shine together. I especially enjoyed Ms. Alsop’s conducting and the orchestra's taught ensemble playing in a particularly angular and athletic orchestral portion.

The BSO programs also have a way of offering patrons some nice after concert bonuses in the so-called BSO Late Night programs. Last night, it was an (additional) performance by the chorus, a capella, on a Meyerhoff stairway. Many of us audience members stayed around to enjoy their virtuosity. Just a note, this bonus performance was for Friday night’s concert only.

©2017 Steve Ember

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Monday, April 3, 2017

A thousand and one nights at the Meyerhoff...

Baltimore's Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall

Baltimore really loves its symphony orchestra. I mean, really-really! It was such an enjoyable experience catching up with the Baltimore Symphony Saturday night. It was my first time attending a concert conducted by BSO Music Director Marin Alsop, as well as my first concert at Baltimore’s Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Wow, did this Baltimore-bred music lover actually type that? Where is his loyalty, one might ask. Not even a trip across the Beltway to hear the BSO at Strathmore Performing Arts Center? (Well, I can at least say that I played a fair number of BSO recordings in my past life as classical music broadcaster.)

All of that changes after Saturday’s engaging evening of music (and more).

But I must blushingly admit that the last time I had previously attended a BSO concert was at the old Lyric Theater. I wish I could even say that the last time at the Lyric was shortly before the Meyerhoff opened in 1982…but, alas, it wasn’t.

Nope, last time I actually attended a BSO program was sometime in the distant ‘60s. Someone had the radical idea of busing a bunch of us rowdy high school hoodlums to a BSO concert. And to make it “worse,” a concert that was being recorded for broadcast.

I referred not long ago to the hyper-developed trivia lobe that sits somewhere behind my eyes and between my ears, so here is a bit of trivia guaranteed to register at least with Baltimore radio listeners of a certain age … or audio buffs (also of a certain age).

We rowdy hoodlums (OK, I wasn’t one of them – I happened to like classical music) were soundly and deservedly bawled out before the concert by Baltimore broadcaster Gil Kriegel of station WITH for “our” (Not Me, I reiterate!) lack of decorum. 

When AM carried the fiddles and FM the celli (or was it the other way around?)

Another bit of musical, broadcast, and audio trivia, again for those “seasoned” enough to appreciate it – Once upon a time, and for a mercifully short period until FM Multiplex Stereo broadcasting arrived, there were experimental stereo broadcasts of the BSO by WITH, which at the time, had both AM and FM stations. The programming was different, but on Sunday afternoons, they came together to thrill music lovers with concerts by the BSO. I believe the conductor at the time might have been Massimo Freccia.

Stereo was new and novel enough at the time that the (often) rather obvious difference in sound quality between the two channels did not seem to dim the experience, and the Symphonie Fantastique did indeed sound pretty fantastic…as did the Tchaikowsky, Brahms, Mendelssohn, what have you.

A typical set-up might have been that the FM channel would blossom forth from, perhaps, a large mahogany “HiFi” console (in our case, it was a huge DuMont 19 inch TV that also incorporated an FM tuner of quite decent quality and a big coaxial speaker), and the poor-relation AM side squawked forth from a table radio (ours was a modest Emerson).

As this was something of an event for music lovers, one made sure that the AM table radio was carefully tuned to avoid any spurious “whistles.” Also, that any fluorescent lights or  vacuum cleaners were turned off to avoid any futzing with the fiddles or flutes.

Oh, my, I have just reminded myself of how Hannibal Lecter, another lover of fine music, rid the BSO of a faulty flautist who made the mistake of playing his flute miserably out of tune during the Mendelssohn Scherzo from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that opens “Red Dragon.” Ah, but that was a “deliciously” appropriate (if purely cinematic) matter of maintaining high standards of orchestral playing, and I hasten to add the flutes Saturday night sounded just fine. So no off-tune livers being dined upon with fava beans and a nice chianti…or served as an amuse-bouche to music supporting dilettantes in Bolton Hill.

But back to those noble early AM-FM attempts at stereophonic symphony broadcasts…They didn’t necessarily have to sound as cheesily off-balanced as I described above. The true audio hobbyist (in which I had by then only attained “sprout” status) might instead have listened on a full-fledged audio system with identical speakers left and right, with the broadcast entering via perhaps a McIntosh AM-FM tuner (with two tuning knobs) which allowed simultaneous tuning of both an AM and an FM station, sending them as separate left and right channels to the amplifying stages of one’s system. In such cases, the AM channel could at least be subjectively closer in sound to the FM channel…given no thunderstorms, fluorescent lights, or errant Hoovers.

Pillow talk...and staying alive (with oriental color)...

Ah, but I did I not begin this errant ramble with references to the treats enjoyed by your scribe Saturday night at the Meyerhoff, as Maestra Marin Alsop conducted Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s colorful orchestral showpiece “Scheherazade” with  Concertmaster Jonathan Carney playing the featured violin parts by which the fair Scheherazade convinced the bloodthirsty Sultan it was better (and much more entertaining) to keep her around as the spinner of exotic tales.

It had been too long since I’d heard this favorite piece in a live performance. Also, some recent photography around the old B&O Mount Royal Station, close by the Meyerhoff, reminded me that it might be fun to rediscover the BSO, experience the Meyerhoff, and enjoy more of Baltimore’s dining and other attractions nearby. And, as a visit to the BSO web site revealed some upcoming concerts featuring "Scheherazade," all fell into place nicely.

While the exterior of the Meyerhoff might be an acquired taste, the inside is pleasantly modern and airy. Even before one enters the auditorium, it is clear the public spaces have been designed with an eye to user-friendliness. Spread out on each level are alcoves with seats and tables for enjoying a pre-concert drink or snack from the multiple bars and food service kiosks or just socializing. And most of these areas have nice outside views, including to one of my favorite sights, beloved from childhood, the clock tower of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s proud Mount Royal Station, now productively occupied by the art school of the Maryland Institute. 
South end of Mount Royal Station faces the Meyerhoff

The auditorium is visually pleasing as well, as one looks up at boxes and other tiered seating areas with graciously curved forms, which were, in fact,  part of the acoustic design. While my computer-selected seat was quite close to the stage and rather far to the left, I do look forward to experiencing the sound balances and views of the orchestra from other parts, and levels, of the concert hall on future visits.

Off the Cuff...

This particular performance of “Scheherazade” was one of the so-called “Off the Cuff” series programs, where Marin Alsop talks to the audience about the work and conducts snippets to illustrate, before conducting the full work.

It is so satisfying to watch people who genuinely love what they do, and who so engagingly share that passion with their public. The big surprise, for me as a first time attendee of one of these programs, was that – after the performance (which was, I should add, most enthusiastically received by the large Meyerhoff audience) – Ms. Alsop returned to the stage with Mr. Carney to conduct an informal question and answer session with the audience, most of whom, I noticed, stayed on to enjoy or participate. There is one overwhelmingly accurate description of how she presides – gracious. The questions were posed by youngsters, seniors, and all ranges in between. And both Ms. Alsop and Mr. Carney were patient, enthusiastic, and engaging. In the case of many of the participants, Ms. Alsop asked them questions in return.

I think the session may have lasted anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and never did I get the feeling that a questioner was rushed or given less than thoughtful replies from the stage. And when it came time to wrap up, it was done graciously.

Oh yes, there was another surprise. After the Q-and-A we were invited to adjourn to the lobby where tasty Afghan dishes were being provided at modest cost by one of midtown Baltimore’s finest restaurants, The Helmand. And, to wash it down, Stella Artois at four bucks a bottle. Oh, yes, and an ensemble providing music.

Can other orchestras learn from the BSO’s example of both gemütlich and user-friendly accessibility? Another “Oh, YES.”

A loyal fan was made that night at the Meyerhoff. Wish it had happened sooner.

Oh, one more thing to note…this one about…manners. How can I put this gently? I have attended concerts over many years at our alabaster cultural palace on the banks of the Potomac. Many a fine performance, whether by the National Symphony Orchestra or visiting world class orchestras. I have never learned to be less offended when, barely have the notes of the last piece faded away, one sees all too many “concertgoers” heading for the exits to be the first ones to depart the parking garage. Not all, but too damned many. I know the orchestra members are paid well, but to see this happening after they’ve played their you-know-whats off…I have to wonder how they feel seeing from the stage this consummate rudeness. And not just when the next day is a work day.

Did I see this at the Meyerhoff? No. Indeed, it looked as though most of the audience did in fact stay put for the Q-and-A.

If Saturday night is any kind of example, Baltimore really loves its symphony orchestra and it really-really shows.

I couldn’t resist a movie reference earlier.  Heah's anudduh. “I’ll be back.”

©2017 Steve Ember

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