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Marin Alsop’s 2005 appointment as music director of the Baltimore Symphony, effective this season, was a milestone for the ambitious female conductor, but querulous times lay ahead. Orchestra staff quickly attacked the choice, their reaction now attributed by some to long-simmering hostility towards orchestra management. True or not, the orchestra’s then chief executive departed, and Alsop used her time as music director designate to improve relations.
Last week in the orchestra’s second home in suburban Maryland, Alsop conducted John Adams’ Fearful Symmetries and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in her debut as music director, repeating the programme in Baltimore the following day. In remarks before the concert, Adams likened her physical response to music to that of her mentor, Leonard Bernstein, and you could see what he meant from her gyrations to his score’s syncopations and driving pulse. A piece of what Adams calls “travelling music”, wherein the listener is invited to step aboard and enjoy the ride, the 1988 work is unreconstructed minimalism – exhilarating even if, like an amusement park ride, it does not really go anywhere.
With the likes of David Zinman and Yuri Temirkanov formerly at the orchestra’s helm, one expected nothing less than a technically accomplished Mahler Fifth, and Alsop did not disappoint. She also ensured that it was an exciting one.
Her shaping of the first movement’s funeral march was purposeful and she gave seething force to the score’s eruptions of turbulence. As the performance continued, though, it seemed to take on a momentum of its own. Opportunities for contrast within the huge Scherzo were minimised, and even the famous Adagietto seemed to have an undercurrent of restlessness. The joyfulness of the finale, its fugal passages all neatly co-ordinated, registered strongly, but overall this Mahler Fifth projected the big emotions of the piece but left one breathless.