Saturday, September 27, 2008

BSO - Bernstein & Mahler - 09/25/08

Conductor: Marin Alsop
Bernstein: Symphony No 1 (Jeremiah)
Mahler: Symphony No 1 (Titan)

Last Thursday evening I was finally back at the Music Center at Strathmore for my first concert of the season by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which is their third of the new season. The program cleverly combined two major pieces by two musical giants without whom classical music wouldn't be what it is today: Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No 1 (Jeremiah) and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No 1 (Titan). There are many obvious reasons for this association to happen: both men were composers, conductors, Jewish, and struggling with their faith. Among his many other accomplishments, Bernstein can boast of having reintroduced Mahler to the world, and he also was a mentor to Marin Alsop, the current conductor and music director of the BSO. This year, he would have turned 90 years old and a lot of activities have been planned to mark this milestone by the BSO, of course, but also by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he had a relationship for most of his professional life, not to mention special programs at Carnegie Hall.

Written and performed by Bernstein when he was only 25, his Jeremiah symphony is a stunningly mature piece of work. Deeply rooted in Jewish history (it recalls the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians), its three movements are eloquently titled Prophesy, Profanation, and Lamentation. After a short introduction, Maestra Alsop led her musicians through a thoughtful performance of the 30-minute symphony, stressing out the hovering voice of the prophet, the merciless destruction and ensuing chaos, and finally the minuscule glimmer of hope in the quiet finish. During the third movement, she was ably accompanied by Kelley O’Connor, whose subtle but powerful mezzo-soprano voice ably highlighted the pain and suffering brought by senseless violence.
After the intermission, the second part of the program was Mahler’s ground-breaking Symphony No 1 that, as such, has had a tumultuous history and was not well received, to say the least, in European capitals when it first came out. Under its current and final form, it contains four movements. While the first and second movements invoke beautifully, but rather traditionally, the sounds of nature and a rustic ländler dance, the third one, the funeral march, stirred all kinds of passion when it was first heard in public. Blending “vulgar” and serious music, featuring a variation on the theme of Frère Jacques played by a double bass soloist, it was way too eclectic and unusual for easy consumption at the time. The stormy fourth movement concludes this daring work with a roller-coaster of loudly triumphant sounds and brilliantly melodious dialogues leading to the final victory celebrated by seven dominant horns.
The orchestra’s performance was full of life, vigorously conducted by a deeply involved Marin Alsop, especially doing justice to the last part, which wrapped up the evening with an exhilarating climax. Despite its ominous beginnings, the Titan is now one of Mahler’s most beloved symphonies, and last Thursday's concert proved one more time that listening to such a complex and expressive work live undoubtedly remains an extraordinary experience.

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