BSO concert dredges up dreck better left forgotten

May 07, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

The responsibility for the dog of a program that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performed last night in Meyerhoff Hall belongs partly to cello soloist Mihaly Virizlay and partly to BSO Associate Conductor David Lockington.

It was Virizlay, the orchestra's principal cellist, who apparently insisted upon trying resuscitate Victor Herbert's long-forgotten and eminently forgettable Concerto No. 1. It was Lockington who decided to match the concerto by Herbert -- who was Irish-born and German-trained but who achieved fame as an American composer -- with such works as Gershwin's "Cuban Overture," Ferde Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite" and Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story."

It was a pops concert in all but name, and -- with the exception of the Bernstein -- one without a genuinely great piece on it.

The only reasons I can think of for programming the once hugely popular "Grand Canyon Suite" are either that of exploring the history of bad taste or that of its camp value. Even as a kid, when I heard this piece with its crude pictorialism -- its imitations of braying donkeys and western cloudbursts -- I knew that I'd rather be at a John Wayne movie.

With that said, it must be admitted that Lockington's performance gave evidence of his growth as a conductor. The ensemble was clean -- something not easy to achieve in so noisy a a showpiece; the performance actually achieved some subtlety in its scene painting; and the orchestra played with commitment.

Virizlay has rarely wasted his considerable talents on so inconsiderable work as the Herbert Cello Concerto No. 1. This piece was apparently forgotten until the late Elliot Gaulkin of the Peabody Conservatory rediscovered it about 20 years ago and introduced it to Virizlay, who subsequently performed it with the orchestra in 1976.

Its tunes are obvious, its sentiment cheap and its construction undistinguished. And while Virizlay displayed some facets of the artistry one usually expects from him, there were also patches of scrappy intonation and occasions on which he did not keep pace with the orchestra.

The best music on the program was Bernstein's own suite from his best Broadway score, "West Side Story." And it was in this piece that Lockington and the orchestra did their best work. The young English conductor showed an idiomatic flair for this quintessentially American score. The music's jazz rhythms had real swagger and its tender moments genuine poignancy. The )) orchestra played with zest and virtuosity, with the players contributing the necessary shouts in the "Mambo" section. It made a brilliant conclusion to a poorly conceived concert.

The program will be repeated tonight at 8:15 and Sunday at 3 p.m.

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