Cheers ring out in one of world's top concert halls BSO'S ASIA TOUR


November 12, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

TOKYO -- Last night in Suntory Hall, the international arena in which the world's great orchestras perpetually battle, Baltimoreans could have been as proud of their symphony as they would be of the Orioles if they had just clinched the pennant.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and music director David Zinman gave perhaps the greatest concert in their history together, surpassing even the fondly remembered performance in St. Petersburg that brought the orchestra's 1987 tour of Europe to a triumphant close.

The symphony, exhausted from traveling and lack of sleep, bounced back to play its best when it mattered most. This concert will be broadcast throughout Japan next month and on Maryland Public Television Nov. 25 and 27. Other public TV stations in the United States will almost certainly show it.

Viewers will see and hear an orchestra making a quantum leap to a new level in the phenomenal performance of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2, which concluded the program. It made believers out of Suntory's usually staid, skeptical audience.

A sellout crowd had come to hear beloved cellist Yo Yo Ma perform the Elgar Concerto in the first half but stayed to be swept away by Mr. Zinman and the BSO's Rachmaninoff.

"Go BSO!" Yo Yo Ma shouted backstage, as he watched Mr. Zinman, a longtime friend, acknowledge the cheers by crossing his arms over his chest and bowing deeply to the audience. "This is an absolute triumph -- people just love it," said Mr. Ma.

David Lockington, the BSO's associate conductor, arrived breathlessly from his seat in the hall. "Unbelievable, incredible," he said to no one in particular.

The Rachmaninoff, a symphony often hard to hold together over its 60 minutes, sounded as if its composer had not wasted a note. From the moment of its melancholy opening, one sensed palpable excitement. It was as if the audience knew the conductor and orchestra were playing "in the zone," with concentration, power and freedom that were impossible to resist.

Gripping climaxes

There was enormous energy and drive; gripping climaxes in which the orchestra did not seem capable of making an ugly sound; a precision of ensemble -- even in the flying scherzo -- that did not eschew expressiveness; and a fearless and flawless delivery of the peroration, made all the more tremendous by the way one phrase led inexorably into the next.

The level of enthusiastic cheers and sustained applause was unusual for a Japanese audience at a performance by an obscure orchestra. The Japanese like perfection. They are willing to part with $250 for a ticket to the Berlin Philharmonic for the same reason they pay $40 for a cantaloupe with flawless skin or $10 for an exquisitely shaped pear.

But for the Japanese, perfection in music, as in most things, usually means recognizable names, such as Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic, violinist Gidon Kremer and pianists Evgeny Kissin and Martha Argerich -- all of whom have appeared in Suntory in the past 10 days and received huge ovations.

But the ovation that greeted Mr. Zinman and the BSO after the Rachmaninoff surpassed any of them, just as it surpassed the great ovation for Mr. Ma after his achingly beautiful performance of the Elgar in the first half of the program.

'Exceptional response'

"It was a very, very exceptional response," said Masa Kajimoto, president of Kajimoto Concert Management Co., Japan's most prestigious classical music presenter. "This audience did not expect this kind of performance from this orchestra."

"Two elements created the enthusiasm," Mr. Zinman said afterward, before dinner with Mr. Ma and the cellist's friend Prince Takamodo, the nephew of Emperor Akihito. "For the audience, we were just an unknown orchestra, and then it discovered it wasn't hearing just a backup group for Yo Yo.

"They enjoyed being surprised, and they treated us as if we were their discovery. And it didn't hurt that our orchestra could compete with anything from Vienna or Chicago. I'm always proud of this orchestra's musicians, but tonight, they really played with their hearts and souls."

Yesterday was not one that bookmakers would have selected for a triumph by the BSO. As concertmaster Herbert Greenberg put it, "It was a very, very bad day until the concert."

On the previous evening, the orchestra played in the remote town of Oyabe, returned after a long bus ride to its hotel in Toyama at 11 p.m., and had to pack and be ready to leave for a flight to Tokyo at 8 a.m.

What made matters worse was that musicians get pumped up after a concert, particularly a good one, and Oyabe had been very good indeed. Few fall asleep quickly in such circumstances, and the players were bleary-eyed as they waited yesterday morning for the buses that would take them to Toyama's airport. They hoped to arrive early enough to nap before a 3 p.m. rehearsal. But when the players arrived, their rooms were not ready. There was to be no rest before either the rehearsal or the 7 p.m. concert.

'Like mashed potatoes'

"We tried to get up for moments like these, but we feel like mashed potatoes on the inside," said piccolo player Laurie Sokoloff.

From the start of the concert, the musicians played at a high level. Copland's busy and treacherous "El Salon Mexico," which had usually troubled the orchestra, was absolutely secure in its precision. And the orchestra seemed to take inspiration from Mr. Ma, who was more tired than anyone because he is battling the flu and arrived the previous day from Boston. Yet, he still managed to give a characteristically affecting account of the Elgar.

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