10 @ 100

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Centennial Season (an amazing milestone) begins on September 17 with an opening night gala featuring Itzhak Perlman performing Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto;  OrchKids and OrchLab students appearing with the orchestra in a special rendition of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," and Caroline Shaw's Baltimore Bomb, one of ten new pieces commissioned by the BSO to celebrate a century of music making, five of which debuted last year with the rest to be performed this season.

Highlights include lots of music by Beethoven and Stravinsky. All five Beethoven piano concertos are on the calendar, along with the 4th, 5th, 7th, and 9th symphonies, plus the violin concerto with soloist Gil Shaham. Among the major works of Stravinsky's to be performed are The FirebirdPetrushka, Symphony of Psalms, Symphony in Three Movements , and the first-ever BSO performance of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments. 

Guest soloists include Hélène Grimaud performing Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2; Jean-Yves Thibaudet plays the Gershwin Piano Concerto in F;  Johannes Moser is the soloist for Dvořák’s Cello Concerto; and Gabriela Montero in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24. Violinist Jennifer Koh joins the BSO Premiere of Steven Mackey’s Beautiful Passing; Vadim Gluzman performs Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto; Augustin Hadelich performs Chausson and Ravel; Ray Chen returns to perform Paganini, as does Henning Kraggerud for some Mozart. The soloists for the Beethoven concertos are:  Angela Hewitt (1), Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (2), Inon Bartanan (3), Paul Lewis (4), Jan Lisiecki (5). 

Living composers are represented with pieces by John Adams (Absolute Jest, The Chairman Dances), Detlev Glanert’s FrenesiaCredo by Arvo Pärt, Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus, and a new work from Anna Clyne titled Within Her Arms. 

In her tenth year as BSO's Music Director (a milestone almost as notable as the Centennial), highlights of concerts conducted by Marin Alsop this season include Mahler's 6th, Bartok's Bluebeard’s Castle (featuring Claudia Mahnke singing Judith and Alan Held as Bluebeard), Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3, “Organ,” Ravel's Scheherazade (with vocalist Nicole Cabell), and Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 on a program inspired by the Eastern Orthodox Church which includes the University of Maryland Concert Choir performing Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Arvo Pärt’s Credo.

Returning guest conductors include Vasily Petrenko, Hannu Lintu, Dima Slobodeniouk, Nicholas McGegan, Yan Pascal Tortelier, Ludovic Morlot, and Christoph König. Johannes Debus and Paul Goodwin make their debuts.

I'm not quite done yet.

Returning for a second season is Pulse, programming aimed at "the next generation of symphony-goers" which pairs "an Indie artist or band with a BSO ensemble performing classical repertoire that shares techniques or idioms with the band’s music," followed by a joint performance featuring both ensembles These events feature craft beers and drink specials, food from local eateries, and pre- and postconcert performances by local musicians. This year's line-up includes Houndmouth (9/22), Brett Dennen (10/20), Lake Street Drive (2/23), and Lower Dens (5/11). These shows are streamed live, and all take place at Meyerhoff.

A new initiative this season is BSO Late Nights, featuring five BSO guest artists performing informally in the lobby of the Meyerhoff after their concerts. These Friday night shows include pianists Gabriela Montero and Jean-Yves Thibaudet (joined by soprano Julia Bullock), violinist Ray Chen, the St. Lawrence String Quartet and the University of Maryland Concert Choir. 

So, how to choose from all that? I restricted my choices to programs appearing at both the Strathmore and Meyerhoff halls, and then went with a combination of pieces and performers I know, and those I want to know more about. Below are my ten picks, listed in chronological order:

  1. What: Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu conducting the premiere of BSO premiere of Einojuhani Rautavaara's Cantus Arcticus, Dvořák's Eighth Symphony, and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 with soloist Angela Hewitt.
    Why: Dvořák gets top billing on the calendar, but the draw here is Finnish conductor Rautavaara's roughly seventeen-minute piece composed in 1972, a three movement work also referred to as a Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, featuring taped bird songs recorded in Finland and near the Arctic Circle accompanying the orchestra in painting an aural portrait of a place few of us will get to visit. Once you hear Rautavaara's music, who passed away this summer at the age of 88, you'll want to hear more of it. Plus, there's Beethoven.
    When:  October 21 - 23.
  2. What: Alsop conducts Mahler's Sixth
    Why: Nicknamed "Tragic," Mahler composed this 90-minute epic during one his happier periods, but that's hard to discern given the final moments of the fourth movement, which is about as dark as classical music gets. Before then, the music covers a wide swath of emotional ground, ranging from militaristic marches to the pastoral sounds of cowbells and children's games. Many view it as an autobiographical work, or see it as a the composer's rumination on fate, but its probably best to just take it on its own terms. It hasn't been performed by the BSO since 1992. 
    When: November 10 - 12.
  3. What: Alsop conducts Beethoven's Ninth, Adams' Absolute Jest.
    Why: The short answer is because it's Beethoven's Ninth. And that really should be enough, but then there's also the addition lure of Adam's Absolute Jest, in which the composer deals with Ludwig van's legacy by deconstructing the master's string quartets and the 9th's scherzo, then taps his own music from Nixon in China and mixes it all together in a concoction that's not quite an homage, but clearly not quite anything else either, except exhilarating. The St. Lawrence String Quartet, who've been associated with Absolute Jest since its ill-fated original version premiered during the San Francisco Symphony's 2012 American Mavericks Festival, appear with the orchestra to perform the reconstructed, superior second edition. As a bonus, there's also one of the Centennial commissions, TJ Cole's Double Play.
    When: November 18 - 19.
  4. What: Dima Slobodeniouk conducts Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Stravinsky.
    Why: The 5th is flashy and audacious, the 2nd is jaunty, and the 3rd is catchy, but Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto is the most beautiful, and one of the finest concertos for any instrument that's ever been composed. Paul Lewis, an excellent pianist by every measure, is the soloist. Familiarity might rob some of the magic from Tchaikovsky's “Pathétique" Symphony, but a powerful performance can still stir one's emotions. The BSO has never performed Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments, a brief piece dedicated to Debussy which was harshly received in during its initial performance in 1921, and later re-orchestrated in 1947. Decide for yourself if it was worth the composer's effort.
    When: January 6 - 8.
  5. What: Markus Stenz conducts Bruckner and Mozart.
    Why: The BSO's Principal Guest Conductor leads the orchestra in works by two Austrians, one we love, the other still pretty much waiting to get his due. If anything can help nudge Bruckner's popularity forward in this country, it's his Fourth Symphony, aka "Romantic." Gabriela Montero, the inspirational and outspoken Venezuelan, makes her debut with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24.
    When: February 2 - 4. 
  6. What: Marin Alsop conducts Anna Clyne, Schumann, and Brahms.
    Why: Few artists can make me excited at the prospect of hearing yet another performance of anything by Brahms, but I'm game to hear pianist Hélène Grimaud play anything, including, the 2nd piano concerto. These concerts also feature the Baltimore premiere of Within Her Arms, composed by Anna Clyne, a young composer (and BSO's composer in residence during their 2015-16 season) whose expressive music packs an emotional punch. Rounding out the program is Schumann's Symphony No. 3, "Rhenish." 
    When: March 2 - 4.
  7. What: Ludovic Morlot conducts Berlioz and Paganini. 
    Why: Hector Berlioz was so far ahead of his time it's hard to remember his music was composed in beginning of the Romantic era, and isn't the final word on it. Musicologists can debate how high on opium Berlioz was when he composed the Symphonie fantastique, but no one can argue the result isn't gorgeous and strange music about obsession and disillusion. Also on the program is Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 1, with fireworks provided by Ray Chen.
    When: April 6 - 8.
  8. What: Alsop conducts Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, and Pärt.
    Why: The music on this program is inspired by the Eastern Orthodox Church, which may or may not be reason enough to attend for some. If it's not, be lured by Rachmaninoff's masterpiece, one of the greatest, most under-appreciated works of the entire 20th Century. Arvo Pärt's Credo and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms aren't bad either.
    When: April 28 - 30.
  9. What: Christoph König conducts Ravel, Messiaen, Prokofiev, and Gershwin.
    Why: On the surface this is a rather head-scratching line-up of composers, kind of like programming ABBA and AC/DC on the same bill -- both are great at what they do, but why would you put them together on the same stage? The hidden link is musical peers looking to France as source and inspiration. At least that's what the website claims. I'm drawn to Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin and Messiaen's Les offrandes oubliées, and besides, sometimes it doesn't have to make sense to make it worthwhile. Vadim Gluzman is the soloist for Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2. 
    When: June 2 - 4.
  10. What: It's a toss-up between the two big season-ending programs, both conducted by Marin Alsop.
    Why: Because it's hard to choose between the sordid pleasures of a semi-staged production of Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, a horrorshow one-act opera with Claudia Mahnke and Alan Held, and the double glories of the Beethoven's Violin Concerto and the Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony. See both if you can.
    When: June 8 - 11 (Bluebeard) and June 15 - 18 (Beethoven & Saint-Saëns).

Top photo of Marin Alsop by Astrid Riecken of the Washington Post.
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