The Baltimore Symphony delivers vivid Wagner program

MusicEntertainmentArts and CultureCultureHuman InterestBaltimore Symphony OrchestraMarin Alsop

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra chose some of Richard Wagner’s most radiant and involving music for a program this weekend to mark the composer’s bicentennial year. The results were pretty radiant, too, Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, and will likely be even more so in the repeat performances, as things settle in more firmly.As a person, Wagner was deplorable — vain, arrogant, manipulative, viciously and relentlessly anti-Semitic. As an artist, he reached the highest peaks. His importance to the evolution of Western music cannot be overstated; the fusion of intellectual brilliance and emotional power that propels his works cannot be overvalued.

The best way to appreciate this achievement is in an opera house enjoying a full staging of a Wagner music drama, but that opportunity is not going to arise in Baltimore any time soon. The BSO is offering the next best thing — a complete act from “Die Walkure” in concert form, with three excellent singers.

As a warm-up, there are samplings from “Tristan und Isolde” and “Die Meistersinger.” And warm was the word on Friday.

Conductor Marin Alsop emphasized the grandeur and humanity of the “Meistersinger” Prelude in equal measure. There was propulsion, but not haste, in her approach, and that helped the ingenious counterpoint in the score to shine through. The ensemble sounded sure and robust.

The BSO’s previous performances of the Prelude and “Liebestod” from “Tristan” over the past decade have been orchestra-only. This time, there was a soprano in the house to do the honors in the “Liebestod” — the opera’s soul-stirring conclusion, when Isolde, having lost her beloved Tristan, essentially dies of love.

As in previous performances of the Prelude I’ve heard her conduct, Alsop ... 

did not tap all the emotive possibilities of the score’s silences, or allow for much in the way of tempo-bending. I would have loved a finer pianissimo dynamic level, too. Still, the conductor unleashed much of the intensely poetic nature of this harmonically restless music, aided every measure of the way by the BSO, especially the strings.

In the “Liebestod,” Heidi Melton didn’t sound fully warmed up; top notes lacked ease. But the soprano’s phrasing communicated Isolde’s internal rapture vividly. Conducting this music for the first time with a vocalist, Alsop provided sensitive partnering. She kept the orchestra from swamping the singer, but hardly held back on passionate sweep.

Alsop was also leading a full act from a Wagner opera for the first time. What she achieved here suggests that she should consider doing more.

It is possible to extract more detail and nuance from Act 1 of “Walkure,” the second of the four works that make up Wagner’s towering “Ring of the Nibelung.” But Alsop kept singers and orchestra on the same tight wavelength as she shaped this hour-long scene, maintaining a strong inner pulse that still allowed room for breadth.

This act introduces three pivotal characters of the “Ring” — the heroic Siegmund who seeks refuge in a house that turns to be that of his long lost twin sister (soon-to-be lover) Sieglinde and her unpleasant husband, Hunding.

Brandon Jovanovich, as Siegmund, revealed a bright, warm tenor and an eloquent manner of phrasing. His top notes could have used a little more weight and stamina, but this was impressive Wagnerian singing just the same.

Melton blossomed as Sieglinde. Her vibrant, focused tone and attentiveness to text yielded a beautifully nuanced portrayal. She and Javonovich produced terrific intensity in the exultant closing minutes.

As Hunding, Eric Owens towered over everyone else onstage and unleashed a deeply resonant voice to match. His superb diction gave each word menacing impact.

Except for a wince-inducing slip or two in the brass section, the BSO delivered the goods handsomely, right from the dark, galloping music that opens the act. Principal cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski — the whole cello section, for that matter — made particularly subtle contributions in the score’s most tender passages.

The gradually diminishing coughs during the performance and the rousing ovation afterward made it clear that there is an audience eager here for Wagner. How about the complete Act 2 of “Tristan” next?

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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MusicEntertainmentArts and CultureCultureHuman InterestBaltimore Symphony OrchestraMarin Alsop
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