Audience responds as BSO catches fire after sluggish start THE BSO'S ASIA TOUR

October 26, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Seoul, South Korea -- When an orchestra and conductor wake up, they can really rouse an audience. That was the experience the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its music director David Zinman had in the National Arts Center yesterday evening in the first concert of the orchestra's Asia tour.

In the last movement of Brahms' Symphony No. 1, and in two encores -- Berlioz's "Rakoczy March" and Glinka's "Russlan and Ludmilla" overture -- the BSO and its conductor seemed to leap into life, bringing the audience to its feet in cheers.

Since arriving early Sunday, the musicians have suffered from jet lag. At a rehearsal yesterday afternoon, the players seemed to drag themselves to the buses that took them to the hall. And at the evening concert, they seemed to be playing through the headaches, fatigue, scratchy throats and sleeplessness that characterize jet lag.

Before an audience that included South Korean government officials, executives from Telarc, one of the labels for which the BSO records, and Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, the orchestra performed like the professionals they are -- giving sound, if uninspired, readings of Berlioz's "Benvenuto Cellini" overture, the orchestral accompaniment to Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto and most of Brahms' First Symphony.

Then something happened.

"Most of us felt like zombies before the concert started, but when we woke up, we took the audience with us," Zinman said at a late-night dinner after the concert. The wake-up call came at the beginning of the final movement in the Brahms. Suddenly, the music acquired a nobility of purpose and majesty of pace that acquired momentum as it led to a thrilling conclusion. For the first time that evening, the audience of about 2,300 responded with genuine enthusiasm instead of mere politeness.

The BSO had not played either the Glinka overture or the Berlioz march since the orchestra's season-opening gala almost two months ago.

Yesterday's readings had a rough-and-ready quality that made them sound as if they were being made up on the spot. It sent the adrenalin racing. The Berlioz swaggered with panache and the Glinka combined excitement with lyricism.

"We began to have fun and the audience picked up on that," said BSO principal timpanist Dennis Kain.

One of the problems the BSO had was an uninteresting soloist in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, E-Jung Kim. She played with an often harsh sound and little feeling for the concerto's sometimes delicate, sometimes racing spirits. Neither Kim, who has studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., nor pianist Seun-Yeun Huh, who will appear with the BSO tonight in the Mozart concerto, was chosen by the BSO.

Of the orchestra's two soloists for most of the tour, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Anne Akiko-Meyers, only Meyers was available for the Korean dates. But the Korean sponsors of these concerts refused to accept Meyers, insisting on Koreans as soloists.

A few weeks back, Meyers wondered if her Japanese descent played a part in this. There's still enormous resentment in Korea of the Japanese, who occupied Korea long before World War II began and who used Koreans as slave labor during the war.

But Byron Gustafson, vice president of ICM (the concert management firm that helped organize the BSO tour), said he doubts this is the case.

"The Korean presenters felt -- in terms of marketing the concerts -- that it would help to have Korean soloists," Gustafson said. "Asians, typically, are loyal to their own musicians, and the sponsors insisted on it."

While the Korean sponsors may be too parochial, Koreans in general are generous in support and enthusiasm for Western classical music.

The National Arts Center complex includes an opera house, several theaters and a school for the arts, as well as a symphonic concert hall. It dwarfs either New York's Lincoln Center or Washington's Kennedy Center.

Generous government and corporate support of the arts seems to be paying off in Korea. In the United States, the mean age of symphony audiences is well over 50. Perusal of last night's audience suggested that at least 50 percent were under 30, many of them in their teens or younger.

"Except for our concerts for school children," said BSO executive John Gidwitz, "this may have been the youngest audience for which our orchestra has ever performed."

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