The question of whether music and musicians should or should not engage in political and social matters remains especially potent in the 21st century. Maestro Marin Alsop led the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Saturday evening in the New York première of Kevin Puts and James Bartolomeo’s audiovisual incarnation The City, which explored social justice in the industrial American city of Baltimore – torn apart and resurrected through solidarity – alongside a valiantly led execution of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

Marin Alsop © Grant Leighton
Marin Alsop
© Grant Leighton
Influenced heavily by the death of Freddie Gray in police custody only a year ago, The City pivots on a fulcrum balancing peace and devastation. Pounded drum rhythms on either side of the stage introduced the first scenes which set the foundation of the city’s architectural identity as images of people emerged to give life to the streets. The images amassed a unifying audiovisual experience that was not necessarily narrative but evocative of a formulaic story arch (i.e. exposition—conflict—resolution).

Rendering acts of renewal and peace, still shots and moving images represented definitive qualities unique to Baltimore – crab fishing, Hampden holiday lights, John Waters and the Ravens. As the main conflict pierced through the city’s façade, images of the riots, demolition, and protest signaled the climb to the piece’s emotional zenith. A single pitch eradicated the video altogether and, in the words of Maestro Alsop, the music told that which words and images could not. The lingering pitch built into a cry of rage that again returned to the beating percussion motif.

As the visual aspect resurfaced, the weight of the aftermath proved to be the most poignant moment of the work. Depicting the protests and response from Baltimore citizens under the umbrella of the Black Lives Matter movement, the piece began to show how the community came together to demand social change and growth. Among the images of teamwork and renaissance were memories personal to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra – images of an impromptu concert for peace and stills of the OrchKids program, which uses classical music to empower children through social change in Baltimore’s economically rigid areas. The piece ended with a looming sense of optimism, though it made a final return to the alluring drumbeat, as if only to shuffle the deck one more time.

Puts composed what was essentially a tone poem; however, he intended the music not serving only as a means of capturing of life, but also as a means of healing. Written in his own neo-tonal language, themes in various episodes that develop in the German style permeate the work. The most distinct compositional features of the piece were the unifying percussive rhythms that gave life to the city as the sun rose across Baltimore harbor and set again on the city’s modern skyline.

Mahler’s episodic Fifth Symphony was paired with the new commission and, if elongated threefold, could have been effectively set to Bartolomeo’s video as well. Mahler’s spirit was bestowed upon Maestro Alsop by her mentor Leonard Bernstein, and her understanding of his language makes her hands-down one of the best interpreters the composer’s works today. The lion-hearted Maestro Alsop conducted the 70-minute work from memory, manifesting the score instead within her soul. She joyously danced along with the Scherzo and resounded Mahler’s multi-layered emotional textures throughout each of the three parts. The famous Adagietto cast its perfectly crafted spell over the hall and diligent attention to phrasing of the melodic lines further emphasized Mahler’s introspective, and possibly romantic, atmosphere.

The musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra deserve to rank among the best in the world, though it may seem that a city’s reputation can falsely diminish one’s perception. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is entering its centenary season in The Fall, and New York hopes to see the return of the BSO to Carnegie Hall often and soon, with the inextinguishable spark of Maestro Alsop who instills abundant joie de vivre in musicians and audiences alike.

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