The Baltimore Sun
By Tim Smith
April 1, 2017
A theme of mortality permeates the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s latest program.
It’s most evident in “Beautiful Passing,” an extraordinary work for violin and orchestra by Steven Mackey, written after the death of his mother. A violin also figures prominently in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” representing the sultan’s wife who keeps death at bay by spinning 1,001 riveting tales.
And then there’s Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” which may not have any intentional association with death, but is often turned to in times of loss.
This is not to say there’s anything gloomy about the program. It’s an uplifting opportunity to delve into emotion-rich music, superbly played.
Thursday night’s performance at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall found Marin Alsop and the BSO operating on all cylinders; same for the guest artist on hand for the Mackey work.
Dating from 2008, “Beautiful Passing” takes its name from words the composer’s mother said on the day that, just as she predicted, she died from cancer: “Please tell everyone I had a beautiful passing.”
Mackey creates a keen sense of dichotomy. Carving its own path through all sorts of craggy, even jazzy bustle in the orchestra, the violin solo suggests someone keeping an eye fixed on an open door in the distance, no matter what the distractions.
And when, in the closing moments, things settle down, the violin vacillates between producing distinct notes and the slenderest traces of tone, suggesting what it may be like to feel caught between this life and the next.
Violinist Jennifer Koh demonstrated commanding technical control and intensely poetic phrasing, especially in the kinetic cadenza midway through the score. Alsop provided sturdy support and drew taut, expressive work from the BSO.
Mackey, who spoke to the audience about the piece before the performance, received a hearty ovation afterward.
Alsop led an impressive account of “Scheherazade,” bringing out subtleties as tellingly as cinematic flourishes and drawing sumptuous, polished work from the orchestra.
Concertmaster Jonathan Carney’s solos sounded spontaneous and spacious, technique and tone secure all the way to the long-held wispy note at the end. The other BSO soloists made flavorful contributions as well.
Barber’s “Adagio,” sensitively sculpted by Alsop, found the strings in radiant form. The fadeout was exquisite, save for another salvo from coughers in the hall who also did plenty of damage to the mood earlier.
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