Maestra Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra return to the Music Center at Strathmore Friday night with the second concert in the season's popular Off the Cuff series. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony will be the subject as Alsop leads the audience toward a better understanding of the frightening, unsettled period of political unrest in 1930s Russia under the reign of Josef Stalin as seen through the composer's grand composition.

Off the Cuff Concert

» What: BSO and Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony
» Where: The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, Bethesda
» Info: 8:15 p.m., Friday; $28 to $88, 410-783-8000,

The brainchild of Alsop, Off the Cuff takes classical music appreciation one step further, by transporting the listener into the life and times of a particular composer and explaining how his work was influenced by the period in which he lived, his day to day experiences and his often emotional responses to these factors. This very intimate exploration features candid dialogue with the audience that is punctuated by orchestral excerpts and musical examples performed by the BSO. Each performance culminates with the featured work performed in its entirety and a Q & A session.

"I get a lot of comments from [audiences] that they really enjoy behind the scenes; that this is the series they want to subscribe to," said Alsop. "They love getting that 'up close and personal' view of the music and the musicians."

Sometimes that view is all too real and disturbing, as in the case of Shostakovich. Russian-music scholar Laurel Fay notes that for most of the composer's life, he had "to walk a tightrope blindfolded without a safety net."

Shostakovich, writing during the time of the horrific Stalin purges of 1934 to 1938, witnessed millions of Soviet citizens, including artists, lose their lives. His was an anxious world of "one false move" that consistently gnawed at him in the wake of Stalin's regulatory dimensions placed upon artists. On shaky ground after the leader's immense displeasure of a daring new opera he had composed, "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District," Shostakovich existed as a society outcast until 1937. It was then he redeemed himself through the pleasingly melodic, Symphony No. 5.

Alsop guides the listener through the fierce drama of the first movement to the second movement's biting sarcasm, wrenching sorrow in its third and, finally, a complex triumph in the finale.

"The turbulent political scene during which Shostakovich composed his fifth symphony gives Marin [Alsop] plenty of interesting back-story to share for this particular Off the Cuff concert," said BSO's vice president of artistic operations, Matt Spivey.