It takes a certain gutsiness to open a concert with not just one, but two big and brassy fanfares — you had better follow through with something worth the buildup. But no one’s ever accused Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Conductor Marin Alsop of not having guts, and on Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore she pulled out all the stops and delivered two huge, spectacular works — including a percussion concerto by Jennifer Higdon that may be one of the most exciting orchestral works of the past decade.
The fanfares themselves were agreeable enough. Aaron Copland’s much-loved “Fanfare for the Common Man” was paired back to back with Joan Tower’s less well known “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman,” and they made a cute couple: Where Copland paints in broad, simple and masculine strokes, Tower rushes busily here and there, generating lots of energy if not the same luminous and stately power as Copland.
It wasn’t clear whether the fanfares’ titles were meant to refer directly to the next two composers on the program — you would have a tough time selling Tchaikovsky as “the common man,” after all — but “uncommon woman” fits Higdon perfectly. One of the most imaginative and uninhibited composers on the American scene, she embued her Percussion Concerto of 2005 with so much kinetic vitality and colorful invention that it sounded at times like the entire orchestra was tumbling gleefully downhill. The half-hour work was a tour de force for percussion virtuoso Colin Currie, who bounded back and forth across the stage while manning a small arsenal of instruments — evoking everything from tribal rhythms to Buddy Rich — as Alsop led the orchestra through a musical landscape of strange and almost unearthly beauty. A brilliant performance, and huge fun, any way you cut it.
Alsop also managed a minor miracle in the program’s second half, which was devoted to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Yes, it’s a tired old war horse. And yes, it’s awash in musty 19th-century themes of Fate and Hope and Despair and whatnot. And yes, it ends in a fit of over-the-top fist-pumping that’s caused millions of eyes to roll since its premiere in 1888. But Alsop treated it all with great respect, turning in a big-boned, perfectly paced reading that achieved both grandeur and a sense of deep human tenderness; a genuinely profound, personal and very moving performance.