Conductor shows how to make way for the music

March 05, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

A continuing perplexity in the music business is why some careers enjoy unexplained success as others go relatively unnoticed. Why, for example, does one conductor with glaring technical deficiencies end up in Chicago; why does another who has yet to learn much of the standard repertory end up in Los Angeles; why has James Paul spent the last 12 seasons in Baton Rouge, La.?

Last night in Meyerhoff Haul, Paul -- the music director of the Baton Rouge Symphony -- gave a distinguished concert with the Baltimore Symphony. Paul is scarcely an unknown -- he has been guest conductor for several important U.S. orchestras -- but the level of his musicianship in Haydn's Symphony No. 92 ("Oxford") and Elgar's "Enigma" Variations suggested that he deserves a more than he has achieved.

Paul has a clear beat, a large vocabulary of expressive gestures, ideas and -- best of all -- an ability to stay out of the way of the music. At his best last night, this conductor was able to make music in such a way that artifice did not seem to play a part in the artistry.

In Haydn's "Oxford" Symphony, Paul and the BSO gave a performance that was both robust and elegant; the slow movements were beautifully shaped without sounding affected; and the wily composer's tricks and surprises, particularly in the dancing finale, were allowed to emerge spontaneously.

Elgar's "Enigma" Variations was as impressive. There was plenty of personality without a sense of the conductor's personality intruding. This warm, powerful and fervent interpretation unfolded naturally, developing momentum along the way so that the burst of joy in the finale sounded inevitable instead of inflated. The playing of the orchestra -- as in the Haydn -- was beautiful, with expressive solos contributed by principal cellist Mihaly Virizlay, principal violist Richard Fields and principal clarinetist Steven Barta.

The evening's soloist in Bruch's G Minor Concerto was the young Canadian violinist Cerovsek. There was an occasional tendency to play with more intensity and a wirier sound than needed. But this was technically impressive playing that had a quality of emotional fearlessness. He's a musician who plays as if music was a matter of life and death.

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