DePreist takes direct approach with Brahms' First Symphony

April 16, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Conductor James DePreist is a huge man who takes a no-frills approach to music.

There was certainly nothing slick about his performance of Brahms' First Symphony, which concluded his concert with the Baltimore Symphony last night in Meyerhoff Hall. He does not seek to charm; he is not idiosyncratic; his music-making is simple and direct, rather than refined. But his vision and conception of a piece, which are as big as he is, produced a monument-sized Brahms First.

DePreist's spacious opening, with its thundering timpani strokes, compelled attention, and the close of the work came with comparable majesty. The second movement showed tenderness without sentimentality. The third movement was warm and lively, with the central section taken at a sensible tempo that did not permit its climax to sound rushed.

Except for some unsteady wind playing early in the first movement, the conductor's tempos, which were steady rather than volatile, produced consistently lovely playing from the orchestra. Even though the first half of the program featured Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg as the soloist in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, the best violin playing of the evening came in concertmaster Herbert Greenberg's solos in the Brahms symphony. His rhythmically secure, sweet-toned playing was a balm to the ear after Salerno-Sonnenberg's ugly performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto.

Salerno-Sonnenberg's vibrato was coarse; her intonation slipped back and forth quickly enough to induce vertigo; and she seemed to confuse playing loud and fast for playing with feeling. Her sound was wiry and unpleasant. And her interpretation, marred as it was by interminable ritardandos as well as by unexpectedly sudden reductions in tempo, was mannered.

Audiences seem to love Salerno-Sonnenberg, and last night she received a standing ovation. Perhaps her rushed, rhythmically unstable playing is mistaken for virtuosity; her casual rudeness of manner understood as attitude; and her body movement, in which she hops back and forth like an aerobics instructor, mistaken for temperament.

Brahms' First Symphony and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto will be repeated at 8 p.m. tonight; only the Brahms symphony will be performed at tomorrow's 11 a.m. Casual Concert.

Pub Date: 4/16/99

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