Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Good Evening Baltimore

March 29, 2012

Colin Currie. Photo: Marco Borggreve
I wasn’t going to write about the whole “woman composer” thing. I hold with those that feel the qualifier somehow invites people to take the work of composers who are women and hold them to a standard that is different and doesn’t serve anyone very well. Plus I can’t think of anything to say that Lisa Hirsch didn't say better already in her excellent 2008 piece for New Music Box.* And yet, as Lisa Hirsch points out, speaking of women composers as well as women conductors is in other senses unavoidable when faced with the stark difference in the opportunities they’ve been afforded in the classical music world. There is still a battle to be waged, and Marin Alsop and her Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which stopped in Orange County as guests of the Philharmonic Society on Wednesday, did so with an unambiguous agenda in this regard.

The BSO has taken up a seasonal theme of adventurous women and are featuring the works of contemporary women on their current program. Furthermore, the programming itself brings the issue front and center as Wednesday’s show opened with Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man paired with Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman. The piece is Tower’s most frequently performed piece and one she dedicated to another trailblazer, BSO Music Director Marin Alsop. I can’t say the pairing of fanfares, both of which use the same instrumentation, told me very much about any gender divide in music or the world of its performance.

But what was true here, and throughout the rest of the evening was just exactly how exciting it was to see Marin Alsop conduct. She has magnificent stage presence and a strong sense of dynamics. And truth be told, despite my many years as a concert goer, I must admit that seeing a woman on the podium of a major orchestra in this way adds to that excitement for me. Yes, this is progressively a more frequent event, and I can rattle of over a dozen other women conductors I’ve had the pleasure to see perform live. But there is something about Alsop and her command of the music and her relationship with this orchestra that rivets.

I wish I could say the same for the music of composer Jennifer Higdon. The other major work on the first half of the program was her Percussion Concerto composed for Colin Currie who was on hand to play it. In some ways the concerto does have an unusual structure in that the soloist not only interacts with the orchestra as a whole but also specifically with the other players of the percussion section in particular at several points throughout the seamless single movement. But despite this, the writing overall takes the most pedestrian of forms with the soloist providing a number of virtuosic turns on a variety of different instruments while the rest of the players generate music that is unvaryingly the same from moment to moment. Currie is a remarkable player though and did pull off some pretty spectacular playing in the showy part written for him. Yet in total, it was a similar experience to Aho’s recent Clarinet Concerto that popped up with soloist Martin Fröst with the Los Angeles Philharmonic last week – whimsical, but ultimately hollow.

The L.A. Philharmonic was on my mind again in the closing piece of the program, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5. If you closed your eyes on Wednesday you could easily imagine yourself in Walt Disney Concert Hall, and not just because the L.A. Times’ Mark Swed and the L.A. Phil’s Deborah Borda were in the room. And I intend this statement to be taken in all the ways it could be construed. Alsop choose some deliberate methodical pacing in the later movements of the symphony that turned things boggy, but at other moments there was a clarity and detail to be admired. The sound was peculiarly American, harking back to the Copland that opened the night with broad almost optimistic attacks that, while certainly congruent with the work’s 1945 premiere, felt a little less like the Moscow of that eventful post-WWI evening and more like, well…Baltimore. Alsop punctuated the evening with a snippet of Borodin's Polovtsian Dances before sending off the very enthusiastic Orange County crowd who seemed to share my warm feelings for her and her orchestra. And that seems as much like the face of progress as anything else I can think of.

*If I'm not mistaken, Ms. Hirsch's piece made her the big winner of the 2008 Best Arts Blogger in North America Prize for her response to the prompt "Women composers. Now what do they want?" However, I may be mistaken about this.


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