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Music review: The Baltimore Symphony at Segerstrom Concert Hall

March 29, 2012 |  1:40 pm

Marin Alsop
The Baltimore Symphony began its first West Coast tour in 24 long years at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall on Wednesday night. The last appearance had been at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and at the time, there were two unusual things about the orchestra. It had an American music director, David Zinman, who championed living American composers. And it had a woman associate conductor, Catherine Comet.

But that was then. Don’t call me a woman conductor, Comet defensively told The Times. And Zinman did not tour American music here.

The last quarter century has not been without progress. In her fifth season as Baltimore’s music director, Marin Alsop is a woman conductor, and she has broken the highest glass ceiling in the orchestral world thus far. She is popular and brings the Baltimore Symphony deserved attention. She is a proud champion of American composers, dead and alive. She also goes to bat for women composers. And she does not pretend otherwise.

An uncommon woman, Alsop began her program Wednesday by pairing Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” with Joan Tower’s cheeky “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman.” That was followed by Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto. It is, unfortunately, a commonplace concerto, but Alsop ended with a dynamic performance of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5.

If there was a theme, it was the common versus the uncommon, rather than a battle of the sexes. Both Copland’s fanfare, which has become almost an unofficial U.S. national anthem, and Prokofiev’s symphony are stirring products of World War II. Ironically, both pieces display communist leanings, Copland having been a lefty and Prokofiev having repatriated with Soviet Russia after years abroad.

This wasn’t savvy programming. Three years ago, Valery Gergiev brought his London Symphony Orchestra to Segerstrom with a rivetingly impassioned, deeply Russian reading of Prokofiev's Fifth, something no American is likely to match. Alsop, her performance the highlight of the evening, didn’t try. Instead, she made the symphony sound intriguingly American.

She is a conductor who insists on rhythmic cogency, sometimes to the point of hammering. That can be an enlivening approach, and it was here. She seats her orchestra with most of the higher-pitched instruments on her left and the lower-pitched ones on her right, creating old-fashioned stereo effects. The Baltimore brass players don’t hold back. The orchestra has color, especially in its woodwinds. It was wonderful to hear the violins’ competing rhythms of two against three in the slow movement as tartly distinct, not Romantic and misty. The Finale was winningly American, our best go-for-broke manner. In doing so, Alsop did something new. She made a neo-Classical counterrevolutionary symphony feel newly revolutionary.

Higdon’s 2005 concerto made a different kind a statement. In the 1930s, California composers led the percussion revolution, and it has been going strong in this state ever since. Lou Harrison was one of the leaders. For the last two decades, Alsop has been music director of the Cabrillo Festival, which was started by Harrison in Aptos (now moved to nearby Santa Cruz), and she has determinedly shifted its emphasis from its experimental West Coast roots.

In an interview in The Times this week, Higdon said that she has rejected the avant-garde that the West Coast school helped spawn. Perhaps that is one reason why her music, which is widely played by American orchestras, has been neglected by the venturesome Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony. Alsop, though, has championed Higdon at Cabrillo, where the Percussion Concerto received its West Coast premiere in 2010. Alsop also recorded it with the London Philharmonic and Colin Currie, for whom it was written, as soloist. It won a Grammy.

Currie, who was the soloist Wednesday, was his usual impressive self. He had plenty of wood, metal and skin on which to do his thing. He began with pretty marimba tremolo effects, a cliché in Hollywood, echoed by a marimba in the orchestra percussion, echoing being a cliché in 20th century concertos. The orchestra’s first big brass statement had a John Williams-lite flavor. Twenty three minutes later, the punchy ending had a John Adams-lite flavor, along with some rock drumming.

All percussion concertos are riots of color and feature percussionists scurrying from instrument to instrument, and so does this one. The point of the percussion revolution, however, has been that it provides composers with new sounds and new ways of thinking about sound. Higdon plays it safe. But does that does mean, at least here in the heart of the percussion revolution, that her counterrevolutionary percussion concerto is not as common as it may seem and sound?


Defiant Women Who Deserve a Hearing

Critic's Notebook: Adventurous fare missing at Cabrillo

Composer Jennifer Higdon pursues friendly music

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Marin Alsop conducting the Baltimore Symhony at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall Wednesday night. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times.