BSO scores with Mahler only when turned loose

May 29, 1999|By David Donovan | David Donovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Mahler Symphony No.1 is one of the most ambitious and impressive first symphonies in music history. It employs a massive orchestra and the variety of thematic material is awesome. Unfortunately Daniel Hege and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra did not meet its challenges. There were many fine touches in all four movements but the magic of the music was always just beyond the BSO's grasp.

The first movement did have a promising start. The opening high string chords were wonderfully atmospheric. The off-stage trumpets were excellent thanks to the addition of a little modern technology. A video camera was trained on the podium so the trumpets could perfectly follow Hege's direction. Once the exposition started, however, the advantage of the opening was lost. The music just didn't have the forward motion required; the movement was left in neutral.

The middle movements fared a little better. The cellos and basses were wonderfully boisterous in the opening of the second movement. The contrasting section of this movement was too strait-laced despite some fine contributions from the woodwinds. Principal bass Robert Barney was superb in his opening solo in the morbid third movement. Particularly evocative were bassoonist Phillip Kolker's contributions. The Klezmer music in the middle of the movement just didn't shake out of its straitjacket.

The finale almost caught fire but Hege was afraid to let go. There was plenty of energy from the trumpets and lower brass but the horns were too inconsistent and not loud enough in their big passages. Mahler goes completely nuts in the percussion section and the BSO percussionists understand this. In fact, the orchestra generally succeeded but Hege was just too stiff to let the music take flight.

The Walton Viola Concerto that formed the first half of the program also was a little tepid. Violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama has the technique for this concerto but the little extra spark that goes beyond the printed score was rarely evident. The best part of this concerto was the orchestral interludes. Daniel Hege did let go here and the BSO seemed to really dig into the fun of the music.

Pub Date: 5/29/99

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