Marin Alsop takes Colorado Symphony Orchestra on a Beautifully Emotional Journey with Bernstein and Shostakovich Symphonies
No matter how technical the artist, music should be, at its foundation, emotional. There should be an emotional response to a musical performance and Friday night there was definitely an emotional response from the audience to Marin Alsop and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Shostakovich’s fifth symphony. Maestro Alsop didn’t just conduct the orchestra, she performed along with them creating one of the most emotionally stirring concerts I have heard in a very long time and undoubtedly the best I have ever heard the Colorado Symphony play.
The evening began with Marin Alsop introducing Mihaela Cesa-Goje, a Romanian conductor who has won the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellow – which means she gets to study with Marin Alsop, take place in the Orchestra Conducting Workshop at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music and study/travel with a number of other great conductors. She may still be studying conducting, but when she presenting the opening work Bernstein’s “Opening Prayer” there was no doubt in her ability. The beginning was beautiful, light, thoughtful and graceful as Ms Cesa-Goje coaxed the violins with a pleading gesture. With it she created a sense of soft anxiety needed for the emotional journey the music was to take. The piece built beautifully until Ms Jamie Barton came in from the upper balcony with a stunning Mezzo cutting through the stillness of the strings brought down to a mere sigh by Cesa-Goje – absolutely breath-taking.
Marin Alsop then took the podium for Bernstein’s Symphony No 1 “Jeremiah”. However, rather than just digging into the music straight away, Alsop gave the audience an introduction to the story and the music, briefly discussing the impetuous behind each movement and then playing a snatch to familiarize the audience with what we were about to hear. Not only did the introduction serve to familiarize the audience with the music, it gave us a chance to get to appreciate Alsop’s charming sense of humor. But this is a serious piece of music and when she played the small segment from the second movement there was an audible gasp from the audience – even that small bit was enough to get their emotions stirring. By the time she was ready to start the piece for earnest the excitement in Boettcher Hall was electric.
It is obvious Marin Alsop was a violinist as many of the gestures she uses to entice the violins through the opening movement of Bernstein’s first symphony are as if she were playing the violin with them. But not only the violins - she played with the entire orchestra. The emotional intensity with which Alsop brandished her baton was immense and yet remained fluid to ensure an ever constant flow to the musical line. Then, when needed, the brass, percussion and low strings were well prepared with glorious hits to drive the piece forward.
The second movement starts light and yet quickly introduces the indicative Bernstein orchestral rhythmic hits and shifting rhythms. Marin Alsop guides the orchestra through the various changing meters masterfully, getting intense hits and dramatic shifts in dynamics intermixed with light dance moments. The shifts in dynamics were almost as rapid as the shifts in meter and even more dramatic. Alsop needed to dance and jump about the podium to drive home her point and she did!
Jamie Barton came on stage for the final movement. The music was held to such a soft beauty it’s unbelievable how quiet the orchestra played and yet still maintained a sense of tone, color and intensity - all of this to allow the rich, melodic voice of Ms Barton to be fully enjoyed. Then, when there were breaks between the vocals, Alsop brought the Colorado Symphony to a rousing thunder and back down again – slowly building the lush strings. Until, finally, a glorious, pleading burst of music, sorrow intermixed with hope. The drama intertwined with passionate emotions and Ms Barton over top it all as if there was nothing could keep her voice from reaching up to heaven. But this is a lament, and eventually the music came back down to earth. I think the audience was stunned, not sure what they had just witnessed.
Then came the second half of the concert, Shostakovich’s fifth symphony, a symphony about the experience of man. I must admit this is not my favorite of his symphonies and while I enjoy the music, I was not expecting it to match the opening in intensity. I am pleased to have never been more wrong. Marin Alsop conducted the symphony, all 44 minutes of it, from memory. In her after concert talk she mentioned liking to perform this piece from memory because it allows her to be more involved with the orchestra.
She was involved alright. Marin Alsop demanded from the Colorado Symphony the same intensity she displayed on the podium, reaching out to each section as if she were reaching inside the player and taking hold of the music inside to pull it out. As she progressed through the first movement she controlled the dynamics softening or lifting when needed – as if she would not continue to the next section until the orchestra was playing at the proper level to continue. Just like with the Bernstein symphony, Alsop played each prominent entrance with the musician, expressed exactly how she wanted the music to sound and the orchestra responded perfectly. As the tempo increased her activity did too, taking on the role of a Drum Major for the brass and percussion section and then back to Maestro as the music needed. Then she brought the orchestra from a pounding passion to a soft lyric passage without losing any emotional weight.
In the second movement we got to hear the cellos be strong and vibrant followed by a wonderful woodwind chorus and then bold horns! Pamela Endsley on Flute and Concertmaster Yumi Hwang-Williams on violin also had a pleasantly playful moment to shine. Marin Alsop danced across the podium to the delightful tune, keeping the music comic and yet also with a tinge of darkness beautifully blended in.
The third movement calls for three sections of violins rather than the standard two. Marin Alsop opted to put the third section to the back of the violins, with the second cellos at the back of the cellos. This created a wonderful extended stereo effect for the opening of the movement. When the rest of the strings come in the music gains a depth and strength. Add a sorrowful oboe solo by Peter Cooper with a delicate drifting away of the orchestra and we were perfectly prepared for the drama of the fourth movement.
The pace here was electric with the intensity continuing to build. Marin Alsop used grand sweeping gestures as she filled the hall with music, then she brought everything instantly quiet for a beautiful horn solo by Michael Thornton. Eventually, when the movement does finally go gloriously major Marin Alsop was out front demanding the very heavens come down to acknowledge the emotional impact of the music. If this was to represent the joy of life, it could not have been played better.
From an opening prayer, a religious story and a symphony about man, the audience was taken on an emotional journey of some amazing music. No matter what you might think of these pieces now, take the opportunity to go see how Marin Alsop, Mihaela Cesa-Goje, Jamie Barton and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra fill the Boettcher Concert Hall with the richest sense of musical emotion. It may be one of the best concerts you see all year.
Marin Alsop, conductor laureate
Jamie Barton, mezzo-soprano
Saturday, Oct 10 • 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Oct 11 • 2:30 p.m.
BERNSTEIN Opening Prayer
BERNSTEIN Symphony No. 1, "Jeremiah"
SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 5