Al­sop, BSO hit fresh peak with Mahler

Sym­phony No. 6 re­ceives in­ci­sive per­for­mance

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND ARTS - By Tim Smith The BSO per­forms Mahler’s Sym­phony No. 6 at 8 at Mey­er­hoff Sym­phony Hall, 1212 Cathe­dral St. Call 410-783-8000, or go to bso­mu­ tim.smith@balt­

It may be pos­si­ble for some folks to hear Gus­tav Mahler’s Sym­phony No. 6 as a purely ob­jec­tive work of art, a col­lec­tion of mere notes that fol­low dis­tinc­tively or­ga­nized struc­tural and har­monic paths to some ab­stract pur­pose.

But just try to keep that de­tach­ment go­ing in the fi­nale, af­ter the first mas­sive blow of a ham­mer that slices through the thick or­ches­tral tex­tures. If that doesn’t throw you off guard, a sec­ond blow com­ing a while later will surely do the trick, shat­ter­ing any last thoughts of ab­strac­tion.

A great per­for­mance — and the Bal­ti­more Sym­phony Orches­tra’s ac­count with mu­sic direc­tor Marin Al­sop on Thurs­day night at the Mu­sic Cen­ter at Strath­more met that def­i­ni­tion — makes you vis­cer­ally aware of just how much ev­ery note of this score counts for much more than sonic en­ergy.

In this 1906 work, Mahler cre­ates noth­ing less than a ti­tanic strug­gle, as per­sonal as it is uni­ver­sal. It’s an ex­plo­ration of what it means to be hu­man and to care, to seek a mean­ing­ful ex­is­tence against any odds. This is mu­sic of heart and soul, as well as as­tound­ing in­tel­lect.

Just about ev­ery con­ceiv­able mood swing — dread, ex­al­ta­tion, irony, love, nos­tal­gia, sar­casm, con­fi­dence, fear — be­comes part of this drama. And if it all ends with an air of de­feat and fi­nal­ity, you walk away not so much dispir­ited as awed. Grate­ful, too, for the op­por­tu­nity to ex­pe­ri­ence this event­ful jour­ney.

The BSO hadn’t made that jour­ney for 24 years be­fore this week’s con­certs, which may be one rea­son for the ex­tra in­ten­sity that em­anated from the Strath­more stage. Things should be just as pow­er­ful, if not more so, in the re­main­ing per­for­mance at Mey­er­hoff Sym­phony Hall.

Al­sop’s con­duct­ing of the Sixth Sym­phony struck me as her finest hour yet with this orches­tra. Make that her finest 80 min­utes — it’s a long piece, and the only one on the pro­gram.

Her tem­pos were ad­mirable from the start. She did not rush the open­ing move­ment’s me­nac­ing march as many do, and she al­lowed plenty of breath­ing room for the vi­o­lins’ ra­di­ant theme that breaks through the mu­sic’s dark edge.

Al­sop paced the An­dante with ex­quis­ite breadth, let­ting the lyri­cal warmth sink in fully, and brought out the bite of the sar­donic Scherzo ef­fec­tively. In the long fi­nale, she held its many shifts of rhythm and char­ac­ter to­gether tightly and made it easy to see what so many com­men­ta­tors have seen in this mu­sic — a hero’s de­ter­mined ef­fort to pre­vail and the stark in­ter­ven­tion of a ruth­less fate.

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween podium and play­ers was tight through­out. That rap­port trans­lated into mu­sic-mak­ing as ur­gent as it was nu­anced.

A frayed edge or two had lit­tle sig­nif­i­cance in light of the ex­pres­sive mu­sic-mak­ing. The brass made the sym­phony’s motto — a ma­jor chord turned mi­nor — reg­is­ter pal­pa­bly at each ap­pear­ance. The wood­winds of­fered great color. The strings sum­moned con­sid­er­able beauty of tone.

The ex­panded per­cus­sion sec­tion hit the spot, and not just in mo­ments of high drama. The gen­tly rustling cow­bells, one of the most in­ge­nious and haunt­ing el­e­ments Mahler uses in this sym­phony, were beau­ti­fully han­dled.

As for the fa­mous ham­mer blows, they were de­liv­ered as might­ily as you could want by Brian Prechtl, strik­ing a large box spe­cially con­structed for the oc­ca­sion by fel­low per­cus­sion­ist John Locke. It can be ar­gued that Mahler had in mind a less re­ver­ber­ant sound — a colder, cru­eler thud — but the ef­fect here proved aw­fully ar­rest­ing nonethe­less.

The only dis­ap­point­ment of the evening came from the au­di­ence, where an ea­ger ap­plauder jumped the gun at the end of the per­for­mance. There wasn’t enough time to let the mu­sic’s un­com­mon weight sink in all the way. tonight

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