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Music’s Other Pop Hits: The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Nov. 8

November 10, 2009

This coming weekend Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra try to make the case for George Gershwin’s place in the classical canon. This past weekend they made the case-without really meaning to-for Wolfgang Mozart’s status as a pop artist.

It was impossible to listen to the BSO-the strings only-play Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” without recognizing how damn catchy the piece is. It’s just one pop hook after another-each one set to a buoyantly bouncy beat. Sure, some people complain that it gets played too much-and it does get programmed frequently-but how can anyone get tired of this anymore than one would get tired of Gershwin’s “Summertime” or Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean?”

When Alsop went into her basketball crouch on the podium, waving her arms as if swatting at imaginary passes, her band responded with the juicy tone that the BSO has long been known for and with the springy rhythms the ensemble hasn’t always mastered. But successive regimes of Yuri Temirkanov and Alsop have given the orchestra a metrical discipline that has sharpened its tonal color and which brought out the pop pleasures in Mozart.

“Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” was followed by three of Mozart’s operatic arias, not from his own operas but rather arias he invented to stick into other composers’ operas or vocal programs. In other words, these are show-off pieces, and nothing’s more central to pop music than showing off. The guest soprano was Alabama’s Susanna Phillips, who clearly had the lung power to belt out every line and to embellish every line ending.

But she didn’t, and that sense of restraint contended with the show-off nature of the songwriting to create a great sense of drama. Standing to Alsop’s left in a shimmery, low-cut black gown, Phillips sounded like an emo teenager on the brink of falling in love when she sang (in my translation of the Italian), “You’ve got the key to my heart/ So set my boots a-walkin’/ Far from my former shyness/ Before the doubts start talkin’.”

No one would ever accuse Gustav Mahler of being a pop artist, but Alsop chose his most listener-friendly symphony, the Fourth, to go with the Mozart pieces. The first three movements all anticipate the utopian vision of the final movement, a Mahler song based on an old German folk poem about a child’s experience of heaven. Phillips sang the lyrics, whose fetching melody was elaborated sumptuously by the strings and woodwinds.

Marin Alsop leads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in an “All-Gershwin” program at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall November 12, 13, and 15.

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