BSO ends Zinman-less season with a bang

June 14, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

One of my big concerns when guest conductor Gunther Herbig led the Baltimore Symphony in its first program back in September was how the orchestra was going to sound in its final concerts in June.

Music Director David Zinman had finished a 13-year tenure in the previous season and the orchestra was to be without a music director for all of the 1998-1999 season and for the first few months of the following season -- until the arrival of Zinman's successor, Yuri Temirkanov, in January 2000. And only the finest orchestras survive such an interregnum without an erosion of discipline and direction.

That worry was finally put to rest this past weekend when Herbig returned to conclude the season with the BSO's finest performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in my 14 years in Baltimore.

This was a remarkable accomplishment. Of Beethoven's late, great works, Igor Stravinsky once remarked that they were "contemporary for ever." But Stravinsky's observation was made more than 50 years ago -- long before an age of electronic reproduction had made the mental, physical and musical battles, which rage throughout the Ninth Symphony and which triumph spectacularly in its choral finale, familiar to nearly every human on the planet. Only a superb conductor and orchestra, driven by inspiration, can make the Ninth sound as fresh as this.

Herbig's performance frequently recalled those of his great mentor, Herbert von Karajan. There was a similar sense of high gloss and unerring control combined with biting urgency. Spacious, measured tempos in the first movement -- at least compared to those of Zinman -- kept the ear in anticipation, not only with phrasing but also with subtly shaded dynamics. The opening tremolos were precisely calibrated, without their usual mistiness; the sonorous contrasts were forceful, without being jarring; and Herbig built the architecture relentlessly to the tremendous resolution of the coda.

The demonic second movement was lithe and powerful, particularly with the shattering thunderclaps delivered by principal timpanist Dennis Kain. The slow third movement was rapt and hushed, with the orchestra's strings sounding near-glorious in their warmth and sweetness. The blazing finale was made all the more effective by the crisp articulation of the winds.

The singing in the finale was splendid, even if the BSO chorus sounded less prepared than usual. Baritone Richard Zeller delivered a powerfully resonant account of the first entry; tenor Anthony Dean Griffey was untiring in his production of beautiful sound; soprano Janice Chandler, radiant in her highest register, and mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, singing with unshakable security, partnered each other wonderfully.

Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4, with BSO concertmaster Herbert Greenberg as soloist, opened the program. Despite fine rapport between soloist and conductor, this was not a particularly lively reading. Matters were not helped by the persistent whine of a hearing-aid located in the rear of the hall.

Pub Date: 6/14/99

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