It was, or should have been, a festive occasion Friday at Carnegie. The visiting Baltimore Symphony was simultaneously celebrating the orchestra’s centenary and the hall’s 125th anniversary. Triumph, alas, proved sporadic.
The podium was womanned, as it has been since 2007, by Marin Alsop. Inquisitive, brave and energetic, she commands a formidable technique. Disdaining printed scores, she also commands an extraordinarily good memory. She looked dapper, as usual, in a macho black tuxedo, crimson cuffs the only concession to feminine cliché. And she conducted with equal parts insight and passion, sometimes against the odds.
Her orchestra, unfortunately, tended to sound a bit stressed and ragged on occasion, lofty intentions notwithstanding. The maestra didn’t make things easy, moreover, by choosing a programme that embraced The City, a rather thorny pièce d’occasion by the Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Puts, followed by the gargantuan indulgences of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
As has become an increasingly popular procedure here, Puts’s new tone-poem serves as mood music for a movie. As such, it resembles Reena Esmail’s Avartan, introduced nearby a few weeks ago by the American Composers Orchestra.
The City offers a conglomeration of percussive thumps and rambling rumbles offset by melodic eruptions and interruptions. The score co-exists with a fascinating documentary tour of Baltimore created by James Bartolomeo. The film projects a vivid, varied exploration of urban vistas, historic and contemporary. Only one problem: it is difficult, possibly impossible, to determine a connection between sight and sound.
After the interval, Mahler’s generous meanderings emerged generally rambunctious, stubbornly chaotic despite everyone’s best efforts. Even the exquisite Adagietto seemed hasty. Ultimately, at least one listener likened the experience to a raucous 70-minute endurance contest. Never mind mellow power. Forget controlled grandiosity.
Still, a big crowd responded to the last of many, many shattering cadences with thunderous approval. Alsop got her hard-earned ovation. That ecstatic response was essentially preordained, of course, by the composer himself. Nature of the Mahlerian beast.