It is peculiar that so "popular" a work as the Franck D Minor Symphony can be so difficult to listen to. (One listener dismisses it airily as one of the most repellent works in the symphonic repertory.) The reason -- at least for listeners nowadays -- is that organ music is so much less in the ear of the public than it was in the heyday of the Franck's greatest popularity, which faded in the years leading up to World War II.
For the Franck, which occupied the second half of the Baltimore Symphony program conducted by Chosei Komatsu last night in Meyerhoff Hall, sounds almost exactly like an organ piece. Instrumental choirs ricochet back and forth over the bass line; there is a roundness of sound -- with not much in the way of individual timbres -- that is more smoothed out than the sonority one hears in the typical late Romantic symphony; there is no percussion.
This is a situation that has a potential for blandness (made even more agonizing by the work's life-affirming pomposity).
But it is a pleasure to report that the BSO's young associate conductor did a fine job. Komatsu conducts with a good deal of discipline and control, but he knew how to surrender to the flow of the music.
His music-making was broad, long-breathed and exciting, with individual phrases lovingly molded. There was both freedom and a sense of steady, purposeful impetus. The playing of the orchestra was impressive -- the strings solid, the brass gleaming and the woodwinds finely tuned. The English horn solo in the second movement was eloquently played by Keith Kummer.
The playing in the first half of the program was less inspiring -- but so was the music.
The Piano Concerto of Gershwin shows that composer at his most bloated. More than 30 minutes long, it should be half that long. What's really distinguished would furnish material for about five really superb songs. The soloist was Susan Starr, a pianist who has infallible fingers, who has a fine sense of rhythm and who played the piece about as well as it can be played.
The opening work on the program was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's "TheBamboula." The music of Coleridge-Taylor, a composer of Afro-Anglo descent, was very popular in this country and Great Britain at the turn of the century. "The Bamboula" has about one good tune -- for solo clarinet -- in it. That so banal a piece of music has passed into obscurity is an encouraging reminder that public taste does not always get worse.