Five years on from her historic appointment as the first woman to head a major American orchestra, Marin Alsop took to the stage of Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley Friday night with a swagger, leading the impressive Baltimore Symphony, the orchestra with whom she has made her mark as one of the world’s leading conductors. Currently on the West Coast for their first domestic tour of the United States, the evening’s performance was the first of a two-day residency with Cal Performances.

Marin Alsop © Kym Thomson
Marin Alsop
© Kym Thomson

The first half of the concert featured three American works, beginning with two fanfares: Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman. Commissioned by the Houston Symphony in 1987, the latter shares the same instrumentation but creates a completely different soundworld, with only one short section alluding to Copland’s famous work. In both cases, the brass section made a bold and assured statement, seamless in both their phrasing and depth of sound. Tower’s fanfare originally began as a tribute to Copland but soon adopted a more feminist message, celebrating, in the words of the composer herself, “women who take risks and are adventurous.”

Continuing the theme of adventurous women, the first half concluded with Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto, featuring Colin Currie as soloist. He performed the piece with unwavering athletic flare. This work was written for and dedicated to Currie as a joint commission of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Indianapolis Symphony and the Dallas Symphony. Higdon’s concerto stimulates the senses, with a wash of rhythmic diversity and timbral colour, relentless at times with occasional moments of lyrical respite. The orchestral writing effectively provides the necessary colours and support, but the spotlight is firmly on the soloist throughout.

After a sensitive opening on marimba, the piece traverses a terrain of devilish and relentless passagework which Currie delivered with precise execution. He strode confidently between an array of percussion instruments, swiftly and with purpose. His longest walk was reserved for the set of drums where he performed a dazzling cadenza with furrowed intensity and frenzied abandon, on the edge yet never out of control. There were superb conversational exchanges between the soloist and the ever-attentive percussion section, and despite the vast distance between them, they locked in with exceptional ability.

Currie was spellbinding not only through his showmanship, but also through his infectious enjoyment of the music. Often exchanging knowing smiles with Alsop, he also took a moment part-way through one section to acknowledge an excitable audience member in the front row with an appreciative smile and nod of the head. He engaged everyone in the entire hall, and even the occasional musician on stage sat mesmerised by an arsenal of techniques.

The program concluded with Prokofiev’s monumental Symphony no. 5, which was premiered in Moscow on January 13, 1945 in a performance that coincided with the marching of the Soviet Army across the Vistula river into Nazi territory. Conducted by Prokofiev himself, the first performance was preceded by canonfire, which marked the approaching end of World War II. The Baltimore Symphony, with a commanding Marin Alsop leading the way like a resolute general, navigated through the depths of this work, highlighting a deep range of emotions and colours to stirring effect.

The tempi of the first movement were measured superbly by Alsop, defiant yet never stagnant. Prokofiev’s superb instrumentation provides a vast palette of colours, which were exploited in this particular performance at almost every opportunity. On occasion, the balance of the strings was overpowering, with the woodwinds getting lost in the heaviness of this texture, but when audible, the wind playing was dazzling and full of character. Principal clarinettist Steven Barta set the tone of the whole second movement with a solo of mocking intensity, changing in mood in the final movement with a chirpy and spirited introduction of the final theme. This marvellous work was given an energetic performance by the Baltimore Symphony, which served as an ongoing reminder of the fine work that Marin Alsop continues to achieve with this orchestra.