The circumstances at Maryland Hall Saturday evening seemed propitious for an exciting musical experience.
Tickets for the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra had sold out. Beethoven's last and most expansive piano concerto, the "Emperor," shared the bill with the monumental Symphony No. 1 of Johannes Brahms.
Gisele Ben-Dor, the resident conductor of the Houston Symphony and recently named music director of the ProArte Orchestra of Boston, was at the podium.
Pianist Alexander Peskanov, who had wowed ASO audiences with a wild and woolly Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3 some years back, was on hand to collaborate in the "Emperor."
Unfortunately, the whole of Saturday's concert turned out to be distinctly less than the sum of its parts as the assembled forces turned out a lackluster effort that must be deemed the first genuine disappointment ofthe 1990-1991 season.
The "Emperor" got off to a false start thatunnerved everyone in the house. As the piano was moved onstage, the keyboard casing was inadvertently jostled, suspending the keys and rendering them unable to strike the hammers properly. As Peskanov tore into his opening E-flat arpeggios, the tinkly sound of a clavichord emanated from the Baldwin concert grand, and the performance had to stop.
After a feverish hunt for the piano technician, the offending casing was snapped in place and the performance resumed.
And thus passed this "Emperor's" solitary brush with excitement.
The orchestra proceeded to contribute a tentative, anemic, downright scrawny reading of the concerto that squandered the resources of Peskanov, an expressive, passionate pianist of high caliber.
It was Sisyphus revisited. The pianist would roll the rock up the mountain in each solo interlude with his vibrant, poetic playing, only to see it fall back down with each orchestral contribution.
Beethoven a la Albert Camus.
The opening tutti was colorless and blah. Dotted fanfares throughout were soggy and uninspired. The wonderful first movement sequence, in which piano and strings chase each other in ascending and descending scales, failed to materialize, as the mincing, tentative strings forced the piano to play tag with itself.
In the second movement, Peskanov's seamless rendering of the flowing triplet motif was in marked contrast to the orchestra's choppy, abrupt phrasing.
The jaunty rhythms of the Rondo were compromised by clipped phrase endings,tentative entrances and a fundamental disagreement over tempo. The orchestra invariably slowed the pace set so admirably by the soloist.
Perhaps out of an understandable urge to animate the proceedings single-handedly, Peskanov dropped a few careless clinkers himself in the concluding movement.
In sum, this "Emperor" had no clothes -- and precious little else to recommend it.
The audience fared somewhat better with the great C-minor symphony of Johannes Brahms.
Ben-Dor's account summoned forth the requisite surges of emotion at judiciously paced tempos. The ASO principal players served her well, especially the solo horn, whose second movement duet with the concertmaster was a thing of beauty.
The French horn also set a positive tone for the final movement, with a ringing statement of the chorale theme.
Still, I must say that this was low-voltage, matter-of-fact Brahms. String tone seemed reticent throughout, which kept the Brahmsian expansions and contractions of sound and emotion pretty much under wraps. Only in the final movement did one feel any sustained urgency inthe playing.
The gorgeous melodic lines of the Andante frequentlyfailed to lift, and some sloppy entrances in the lower strings did not help the movement's cause.
In all, this was a Brahms First thathad its moments but never came together as a transcendent whole.
The concert opened with an account of Verdi's overture to "La Forza del Destino" in which destiny seemed to rap nimbly at the door in Rossini-ish fashion. Verdi's hammer blows of fate never announced themselves.
I'm sure the ASO players embraced the talent and personality of their guest conductor, but they nonetheless kept the music at arm's length all concert long.