Zinman's sympathetic reading elevates Elgar's 'Music Makers'

October 31, 1997|By Stephen Wigler HTC | Stephen Wigler HTC,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Among the great English composers, Edward Elgar was "distinguished" by a tin ear when it came to poetry. "The Music Makers," the composer's penultimate chorus-and-orchestra work, is a setting of an amateurish poem by one Arthur O'Shaughnessy, an expert on reptiles who would have been well-advised to have confined himself to those creatures.

A composer need not have a good text to produce good music. But it's a measure of the weaknesses of "The Music Makers" that its best passages are those Elgar cannibalized from his earlier works.

It is sometimes hard to believe that Elgar went on to produce such masterpieces as "Falstaff" and the Cello Concerto.

But there are occasions on which "The Music Makers" can sound like a pretty good piece. One of them occurred last night in Meyerhoff Hall when David Zinman performed the piece with the Baltimore Symphony and Chorus.

Zinman has always been a devoted Elgarian -- and his passionate response to the music is tempered by intelligence and an impressive command of its ebb and flow. His warmly understanding reading -- with fine work by his orchestra and Edward Polochick's carefully prepared chorus -- made a most persuasive case for "The Music Makers." The young Swedish mezzo-soprano, Malena Ernman (in her American orchestral debut), was an illuminating and intelligent soloist.

Choral music is usually box-office poison for the Baltimore Symphony, but a sold-out house was ensured by the presence of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who performed Schumann's Concerto in A Minor.

This concerto's solo writing, with its emphasis on the lower strings, is ungrateful and many cellists cannot avoid making their instruments groan along without relief. That was not the case with Ma: His tone never lost its quality; his phrasing was utterly patrician; and his left hand seemed infallible.

There were some unsettling things about the performance, which occasionally seemed a little episodic and was filled with unexpected nuances. But what makes Ma a great artist is that he refuses to take thrice-familiar music for granted and almost invariably tries to reinvent it with each performance.

The program opened with Steven Mackey's "Lost & Found," a playful and harmless potpourri of six minutes' duration.

Pub Date: 10/31/97

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