One wouldn't think a program of Mendelssohn and Mahler would lead to a half capacity audience but that's precisely what we saw at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall this past Sunday at 3. It was odder considering that the program's first half was Mendelssohn's ever-popular Italian Symphony. Though a lackluster performance such as the one Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony gave is not deserving of greater attendance. Alsop set tempos far too quick for the orchestra to sustain, there was nary a soft dynamic to be heard, the ensemble was far too imprecise for Mendelssohn's fastidious writing, and the phrasing was atypically bland.
(How The Master did it.)
But then came a performance of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth) that would have gladdened Mahler himself. Alsop's interpretation had nearly as much dynamism and flexibility as the Mahler performances of her mentor, Leonard Bernstein. The BSO savored the bittersweet nuances of Mahler's writing. But no performance of DLVDE can work without two good vocal soloists. The young British tenor, Simon O'Neill, showed why he established himself so quickly as a dramatic tenor to be reckoned with. His piercing voice filled the hall with metallic ring (excerpting a single flubbed note) but tempered by a rare musical intelligence. The American mezzo, Theodora Hanslowe, may not have displayed the same vocal gift as O'Neill, but she displayed even greater musicianship. None but a true artist can guide us through DLVDE's half-hour-long final song without it becoming brutally tedious. With Hanslowe and Alsop as our guides, it was very nearly transcendent. The end result may have been the greatest performance I've ever heard Baltimore Symphony give under Marin Alsop. It's just a pity that so few appreciated it. Among the half-capacity audience brave enough to experience Mahler in 2011, half walked out during the applause.