BWW Reviews: BSO Takes Strathmore on a Journey Through Russia

By: Nov. 19, 2014
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Under the energetic baton of stylish conductor Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has honed its classical focus while finding new ways to remain culturally relevant. From Alsop's innovative Off the Cuff series to a focus on a film scores, the BSO is often at the forefront of what is expected from a modern orchestra, but this past Sunday was all classical. From Tchaikovsky to Rachmaninoff to Shostakovich, the BSO treated the Music Center at Strathmore to a musical journey that bridged romantic and contemporary Russian music.

The concert began with a bracing march in Tchaikovsky's Marche slave, a short piece that intersperses a mournful Serbian melody with an energetic, almost holiday-like theme. For the meat of the concert, the BSO brought out its soloist, pianist Boris Giltburg, for a graceful rendition of the virtuosic Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1. The fact that the concerto is Rachminoff's first opus is startling, it's one of the most difficult pieces written for piano and quite an orchestral beast. Originally written when Rachmaninoff was only 18 years old and then later revised at age 44, his first concerto packs both the punch of teenage angst and the mature restraint of one of the last Russian romantic composers. The second movement is an exquisite highlight of romantic repertoire with a melody so autumnal it could pull the spring leaves off trees.

Boris Giltburg, piano

Walking on stage in an untucked black dress shirt and leaning over the piano in a style you might expect from a Pixar caricature of a concert pianist, Giltburg embodied both sides of the concerto. With flair and ease he brought out the softer side of the music with slower tempos and more deliberate pacing, right up until the last movement which was an absolutely thrilling race to the finish.

For the second half of the concert, Alsop made the jump to the Russian contemporaries with Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5. Written under the iron fist of Joseph Stalin's reign, the epic symphony walks a tightrope between patriotism and and satire. While some conductors, most notably Leonard Bernstein, have chosen to exaggerate one side or the other, Alsop has always conducted the piece firmly on the fence between the two. However, while not politically adventurous, the BSO's approach to the symphony is incredibly musically adventurous with aggressive strings and a trombone section that played to bring down the walls of Jericho. Throughout the night the BSO's singularly talented musicians filled the beautiful Strathmore Hall in North Bethesda with passion and vigor.

With this Russian program, Alsop really makes a statement about the storytelling power of classical music. Not only did the three selections chart a clear line in Russian music, but piecing them together also brought out their individual dualities in a very unique way. When placed side by side, the contrast between the tragic and the cheerful in Tchaikovsky, the adolescent and the mature in Rachmaninoff, and the patriotic and the satirical in Shostakovich becomes clearer than ever before. With intelligent programming like this, it is certain that Alsop has plenty more surprises in store for the rest of the season.

Photos courtesy of Strathmore's website.


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