Conductor: Marin Alsop
James Lee III: "Chuphshah! Harriet’s Drive to Canaan"
Dvorak: Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 – Alisa Weilerstein
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 6 in B minor, Op. 74 (Pathétique)
After my extremely successful visit to DC back in June, I had wasted no time planning to come back late September, mostly because I had no desire to put up with the local heat and humidity of summer, if I could help it. But sure enough, just as I was stepping off the bus at Union Station on Thursday afternoon, my clothes immediately clung to my skin, my hair started frizzing uncontrollably and all I could do was desperately gasp for oxygen. That’s when I quickly realized that my best laid plan still couldn't control everything.
But even if Mother Nature did not initially bother to cooperate (It rained pretty much all day on Friday, which I consequently spent happily eating, drinking and catching up with various friends), there were still too many wonderful moments to regret for even one minute the trip down south. One of those highlights happened on Saturday night when, like in the good old days, I had the opportunity to enjoy the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, where they performed two of my favorite musical works: Dvorak’s glorious cello concerto and Tchaikovsky’s magnificent Pathétique. So who am I to complain about some minor meteorological inconveniences?
Although I will probably never have the same sentimental connection with the Strathmore music center as with the Kennedy Center’s concert hall, which I have always considered my DC musical home, it was still a real treat to be back within its familiar walls. (The heart-breaking destruction of the beautiful park surrounding it to make room for yet more condos is another story). Seeing the faces of the BSO’s musicians and its music director - and conductor for the evening - Marin Alsop, complete with her trademark red cuffs, really made me feel as if I had never left. The first piece on the program was the world’s première of a tone poem dedicated to the extraordinary abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Taking its name from the Hebrew word for freedom and from the northern free states of America, then considered the promised land by the slaves, “Chuphshah! Harriet’s Drive to Canaan” alternates fast and slow segments describing the heroine’s personal feelings such as sadness and fear as well as cultural/historical elements like the Civil War and Negro spiritual hymns. Even if the whole thing was a bit discombobulated, the orchestra sounded as good as ever.
I had had the pleasure of hearing Alisa Weilerstein authoritatively tackle Haydn’s cello concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra a couple of years ago, and I was very much looking forward to her taking on Dvorak’s much celebrated cello concerto, probably the most popular cello concerto of them all. Its strong, catchy opening sets the tone by introducing the two irresistibly melodic themes, preparing the ears, heart and mind for the cello’s late but startling appearance. Each note oozes full-blown Romanticism, instilling the work with passionate élans and exquisite wistfulness for a sentimental trip to the composer’s beloved Bohemia. Alisa Weilerstein turned out to be an extremely gifted guide and virtuosically conveyed all the technical and emotional complexity of Dvorak’s masterpiece, steadily backed up by a remarkably attentive orchestra. Even the inconsiderate light bulb that loudly blew up right over the musicians’ heads during the first movement did not manage to break the spell.
Then we were on to Tchaikovsky’s grand swan song, the unrivaled Pathétique. As its French title explains, this is all about an “emotional” journey starting with a dark, sober evocation of death and ending in a last whisper fading into silent. Far from being hopelessly depressing though, it also features a poignantly Romantic theme, a strangely limping waltz and an assertively boisterous military march. All of that plus the composer’s inherent genius for riveting melodies make the whole experience downright unforgettable, especially when it is performed by such an accomplished ensemble as the BSO. While the interpretation of Saturday night was less unabashedly heart-on-sleeves than others I have attended, it was still plenty gripping and powerful. No matter how you looked at it, this Pathétique was yet another hands-down winner for Marin Alsop and her musicians.