Wolff conducts Haydn weakly and Shostakovich masterfully

January 31, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Last night's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program in Meyerhoff Hall showed some of the strengths and weaknesses of its guest conductor, Hugh Wolff.

The weaknesses were apparent when he led Haydn's Symphony No. 84. Even though he has just recorded all of the composer's "Paris" symphonies with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (of which he is music director), Wolff demonstrated what seemed a rudimentary conducting technique. His left and right hands seemed tied together -- the left mirroring exactly what the right was doing -- and there were times whenthe young conductor's leaps threatened to turn him into an unguided missile.

But the mark of a good orchestra is that it can give a good performance under adverse circumstances. The BSO players -- whom David Zinman has trained to play terrific Haydn -- seemed to be following one another, rather than the conductor, and gave a fine performance.

That Wolff deserves his reputation as one of the best American conductors of his generation was demonstrated by his performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 9.

This is a piece whose mood -- it is an almost Rossinesque bagatelle with a darkly troubling subtext -- is not easy to catch and in which a less-than-experienced conductor can easily get lost. Wolff's performance was superb: he caught the various moods of the piece -- its sardonic overtones as well as its joy -- and he elicited fine playing from the BSO musicians, who had not played the piece in more than 20 years.

Principal bassoonist Phillip Kolker's performance of the monster bassoon solo -- its duration is almost that of an entire movement, and it contains the best and darkest music in the piece -- was as beautiful as anything any listener will hear this season.

And just as brilliant was soloist Elmar Oliveira's dazzling account of Glazunov's Violin Concerto on the first half of the program.

The program will be repeated tonight at 8:15.

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