Baltimore Symphony offers compelling Puts, uninspired Mahler
There was a dual celebration in Carnegie Hall last night. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was celebrating its centennial year, and bringing with it the New York premiere of Kevin Puts’ The City—which came out of Carnegie’s program of commissioning 125 new pieces to mark its own 125th anniversary.
And there was more: music director Marin Alsop and the orchestra filled the second half with Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. What promised to be an evening of terrific orchestral music, though, turned out to be surprisingly frustrating.
Puts’ composition works hand in hand with a silent documentary film on Baltimore made by James Bartolomeo. The City is of a piece with the composer’s orchestral music; muscular elegance, bright orchestration, big gestures and big feelings. Puts speaks directly to the listener through a combination of regular, proportional phrases and consistently interesting harmonic resolution that creates the impression of melody without being an especially tuneful composer. He is sincere and sympathetic, and the music is tightly coordinated (even down to bracing rhythmic tattoos that follow the pace of the visual jump-cuts) with Bartolomeo’s stimulating film. The orchestral playing was razor-sharp and exuberant.
The City is a soliloquy, citizen to citizen. The film unspools images of Baltimore through the decades, going back to the 19th century, and when the pictures are of buildings, highways, and other landscape, the music has that exuberant, Thomas Hart Benton quality that evinces a great American sound. For an odd stretch in the middle, the piece goes sideways with Puts’ own version of Moroccan music. This is frankly incomprehensible, defying the piece’s very own logic, but after a bit, Puts folds it skillfully back into the overall form.
We also see a lot of people, all kinds of people (including Divine) in all sorts of situations. This is when the music is at its most attractive, expressing that the best thing about cities is their people.
This is also the subject of recent revisions. Bartolemeo and Puts added material that shows and responds to the riots in Baltimore last year, juxtaposing them with the riots of 50 years ago. Puts doesn’t underline these images, he frames them with a brittle drone, a sustained pitch that sounds like it’s vibrating along spun fiberglass—he understands that some things speak for themselves.
In the end, Puts ends the piece in similar fashion. There’s no big wind up to a triumphal finish, instead there is an ambiguous expectation, but of what? Puts is an honest composer, and asking the question of what might come next, rather than assuming the answer, was humane and affecting.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 is a piece with a big, triumphal finish. That coda works if the orchestra earns it, playing the music that comes before as a complex and intense journey through darkness to light.
The Baltimore Symphony did not play Mahler this way. Their energy was high, and their technique was mostly strong—all the notes added up, but it didn’t add up to Mahler.
This is Mahler, the subject is life or death, particularly in this symphony, with its wild, extreme swings. The playing was raw and pure, but wasn’t channeled toward the expressive purposes of the music.
The tread of the opening movement was funereal, yet the spirit was workmanlike, not tragic. When the music explodes into a frenzied rage against the dying of the light, the playing was strangely poised, and there was no pushing at the edge of control.
This conception, or lack of one, effected the whole performance. There was fire but no heat in the Stürmisch bewegt section, no depth of sorrow in the cello melody. Principal horn Philip Munds’ playing in the scherzo was bright, but the flat expression continued.
Alsop seemed to view Symphony No. 5, erroneously, like one of the Wunderhorn symphonies. With the Fifth, Mahler began to write directly for the orchestra on large-scale score paper, and the change in format added a three-dimensional physical and imaginative sweep to his art, which previously had unfolded in a horizontal skein.
The Baltimore orchestral sound was also strange–thick and grey when the music is full of shaded colors like burnt orange, sour green, and pale blue. Mahler’s incredible polyphony was buried in thick textures, and there was no attention to the expressive interior details of phrases.
Without this conceptual or musical understanding, this is a showpiece without a purpose. The Adagietto was very slow throughout, in the prevalent modern style, a reach for contrast that failed because there had been nothing in particular to contrast with. The orchestra maintained their high spirits in the Rondo-Finale—though with some sloppy moments—and made a huge sound at the climax. But what was the point?
Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the Philadelphia Orchestra and Lang Lang in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Deryck Cooke’s version of Mahler’s Symphony No. 10, 8 p.m. May 11. carnegiehall.org