The Washington Post
Marin Alsop and the BSO played Mahler’s Ninth as if expressing his pathos and urgency — and theirs.
Marin Alsop led an expansive, complicated rendition of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony under difficult conditions Saturday night in the Music Center at Strathmore. The last time she conducted the work, in 2009, she made the mistake of pairing it with an inferior work by Leonard Bernstein. This time around it stood alone, suffused with regret and nostalgia.
Anxiety about the future has hovered over the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra all season. Management has insisted the orchestra become a part-time ensemble by cutting back the season from 52 weeks to 40 weeks. At the end of May, after an extended contract dispute, management abruptly canceled the orchestra’s summer season, suspending musicians’ pay as of June 16.
Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is a leave-taking, composed after the death of the composer’s young daughter. Much of the first movement obsesses over the threenote motif “Lebewohl” (Farewell), taken from Beethoven’s piano sonata “Les Adieux.” After an ethereal opening in cello and harp, Alsop wrung as much pathos and urgency as she could from this music — and those emotions seemed to resonate with the orchestra’s situation.
The rough-hewn second movement plodded along somewhat rudely, the second violins hacking away unceremoniously at the first statement of the Ländler. The third movement darted and bit even more bitterly, the viciously maintained counterpoint interrupted by a crystalline, mournful trumpet solo around the midpoint.
The entire violin section, one of the BSO’s greatest assets, sang their hearts out in the opening of the concluding Adagio, marked “grosser Ton” (with big tone) in the score. The plush string section, including heart-melting solos from concertmaster Jonathan Carney, sustained the time-stopping tempo set by Alsop, complemented by gorgeous horn solos. One early flute entrance aside, quickly righted, it was a moment to glory in the sound of the BSO, just before its likely dismantlement at the hands of its own management.
At the start of the concert, the entire orchestra took the stage together, in a gesture of solidarity. The devoted Strathmore audience responded with standing ovations both at the beginning and end of the concert. The affection in the hall was palpable, but it may not be enough to save this esteemed ensemble from diminishment.