Maron Alsop’s Swan Song — A Rousing Performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

Andrea and I attended the rousing performance of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore Music Center last night. It was conductor Maron Alsop’s last appearance of the season, and we were intent on attending after having recently viewed a rich documentary called “The Conductor” about her life and career as the first woman Musical Director of a major symphony orchestra.

Maron Alsop

Her ascendance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra had a rocky start when anonymous musicians objected to her appointment back in 2007. In the documentary, she had admitted being “traumatized” by that initial rejection, but had then met with the whole orchestra to speak her intentions, winning them over (she had previously guest-conducted them with good results). Andrea and I have been big fans of hers over her fabulous 15-year tenure, facilitated by the BSO’s having contracted to play regular concerts at the Strathmore in suburban DC, as well as at their home base in Baltimore.

Alsop always brought a unique verve to her music-making. Her “Off the Cuff” talks about featured music prior to the concert were a big hit, inspired by her own experience of Leonard Bernstein’s lively pre-concert talks. She had an animated, no-nonsense approach to the classical repertoire and brought out the best in her musicians. She garnered the BSO’s first recording contracts in decades and took the orchestra on the road for acclaimed tours of Europe and Asia as well as the U.S.. Closer to home, she had a strong commitment to serving the local Baltimore community and instituted a children’s music instruction program among inner city kids that has yielded phenomenal results. And she had commissioned many new compositions from  up-and-coming classical composers, especially from women and people of color.

This was our 4th BSO concert of the season and by far the most inspiring. For one, the concert hall was packed full, in contrast to the previous Covid-dominated, less-than-half full events. There was an excited buzz as the orchestra attuned and a rousing welcome to the Maestra when she came on stage. She graciously received the adulation but then quickly turned to the musicians to begin.

The concert began in an unorthodox way with a new composition written expressly as a choral prelude to Beethoven’s masterpiece. In addition to the main chorus singing from above and behind the stage, there were two soprano soloists standing in upper boxes on either side of the stage. In addition, singers entered down both central entryways of the orchestra. The composer, Renna Esmail, had written a deeply spiritual piece that began with sacred Hindu chants evoking the primordial darkness before the creation of the physical universe. It’s called “See Me” and is an invitation to witness the first Light permeating the fluid darkness. It’s a relatively short piece and was immediately followed by Alsop leading the orchestra into the somber yet awe inspiring tones of the Ninth Symphony’s opening movement.

The Ninth Symphony long first movement has been described as “the most daring instrumental movement Beethoven ever composed” (from the program notes by Janet Bedell). It was a powerful segue from the choral chanting on the primordial darkness in “See Me.” The opening could well be a depiction of the force of creative order emerging from dark emptiness, tentatively at first, but with mounting force and grandeur.

Before the vivacious scherzo movement began, four colorfully dressed African drummers entered onto the stage, playing a strong, multi-faceted rhythm that kept growing in complexity and intensity. They were members of Baltimore’s Keur Khaleyi African Dance and Cultural Institute who had a lot of experience bringing their rhythmic artistry to multi-cultural events like this one. For me, the complex rhythms of the drumming were a good prelude to the rhythmic scherzo movement.

The slow (“Adagio”) third movement of the symphony contains some of the most lyrical and heartfelt music of Beethoven’s many works. For me it as an expression of the deepest spiritual values of caring, compassion, and abiding love. This movement was preceded by a brief jazz combo (guitar and trombone) riffing on a sweet melody while Wordsmith (Anthony Parker) spoke words of care, tenderness, and commitment. The program notes describe Wordsmith as a “Baltimore-based songwriter, performer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist.” It was he who penned new lyrics for the Ode to Joy of the fourth movement.

Wordsmith (Anthony Parker)

The performance had been advertised as a “21st-century call to unity, justice, and empowerment… a bold interpretation of Beethoven’s ideas in response to today’s world”. The powerful fourth movement is among the best-known pieces of classical music. The famous melody for the Ode to Joy was one that Beethoven had heard decades earlier during the French Revolution. He used the romantic poet Shiller’s poem for the words. My sense was that Wordsmith’s 21st century poetry matched Beethoven’s intent to a tee. The full feeling of the music itself was only enhanced by the humane call for empathy and decency that Wordsmith had written.

The music ended with a spontaneous standing ovation continued for a good long while. Alsop gracefully showcased the four soloist singers, the three choruses, Wordsmith, and her entire orchestra. She returned for one last solo bow and the audience remained standing and applauding to the end. Maestra Alsop was visibly moved, as were many of us in the audience. Most of us have had few recent opportunities to come together to celebrate the power and beauty of the highest human ideals and creativity on the level we had experienced together for ninety minutes that splendid evening.

…but not everyone. As we were leaving, we noticed a debonair-looking middle-aged man in a striking pin-striped suit who was speaking loudly and animatedly on his phone about how crass and sacrilegious the concert had been, loudly dismissing it as “rubbish.” I gave him a big thumbs-down as I passed him. He was a reminder of the many conservative forces that have kept classical music within the domain of a stuffy, stultified culture for all too long.

John Bayerl, 4/8/2022