Classically Trained: Baltimore Symphony makes impressive O.C. appearance

At least on paper, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra seems like the underdog among the recent visiting orchestras that have come or are yet to come to Costa Mesa.

Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Los Angeles, the Mariinsky, the fabled Vienna Philharmonic — all have stellar reputations that put them in the world's who's who list of orchestras.

Baltimore, while certainly nothing to shake a baton at, is not quite on that topper list for most people, nor was it ever in this country's so-called "Big Five" orchestras of yesteryear.

Yet the 96-year-old orchestra's one-night showing Wednesday in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall proved it's certainly a contender — and then some.

A decent-sized crowd came, which wasn't bad considering the concert's timing in the middle of the week.

The concert, presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, was Baltimore's first tour to the West Coast in 24 years and its first domestic tour since 2000. The players were led by Marin Alsop, the first female ever to be music director of a major American orchestra. She's had the post since 2007.

She kept a straightforward and energetic command of the podium throughout the night, which started with Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man." The brass section stood up while playing it — a nice touch, I thought — and sonically shook the house.

Then came the complementary piece, "Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman" by Joan Tower, which kept with the orchestra's seasonal theme back in Maryland of "Revolutionary Women." "Uncommon Woman" uses the same instrumentation as Copland's iconic work and is noted for being by a woman who managed to break the male-dominated boundaries of the composing world.

Then came Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto, an avant-garde piece of the accessible kind. Its soloist, Colin Currie, needed five music stands spread about an arsenal of instruments — namely a marimba, vibraphone, bongos, various blocks and cymbals, and tom-toms — that fronted the stage. Getting to them all on time and grabbing the best-fit bow, mallets or sticks was quite the choreography.

Like most concertos, the audience paid most of its attention to Currie and his fellow three percussionists, who occasionally played off another. Currie would play a snippet to which one of his colleagues in the back would answer. The effect was remarkable: a real potpourri of sounds to feast upon, the variety of which we are rarely treated to hearing.

All four percussionists on blocks was like hearing the pitter-pattering of plastic-coated raindrops. That's what came into my head, at least. I loved it.

Currie's cadenza was remarkable as well, and definitely that something different from the concert hall norm.

After the intermission, the entire orchestra got its chance to shine with Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5. Alsop conducted it from memory.

The symphony was written during a world amid its second devastating war. Of Baltimore's rendition of it, my ears could find little at fault, except for some occasional much-too-abrasive trumpets.

That said, they played menacingly when menace was called for. When it called for crying, the strings ached with the sounding vibrations from their bows. It was wonderful. I would've stayed another hour to hear another symphony.

Still, it was a Wednesday, one of those run-of-the-mill weekday work nights. Which is probably why more than the usual few got up quickly to leave, despite the brief encore — a segment of Borodin's "Polovtsian Dances" — and enthusiastic applause.

The Baltimore Symphony's tour next takes them to Berkeley, where they will have a three-day residency before finishing up with a performance in Eugene, Ore.

BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. Email him story ideas at

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