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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