The music sounded familiar, some of it sounded glorious

November 15, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Dmitri Kitaenko made his Baltimore Symphony conducting debut Friday night in Meyerhoff Hall with a program entirely made up of familiar-sounding music.

Two of the pieces were indeed repertory chestnuts -- Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor (with Evgeni Bushkov as the soloist) and Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite (in the 1913 version). But the third piece, which contained the most familiar-sounding music of all, was probably new to most listeners.

Composer Rodion Shchedrin's "Carmen" Ballet, which opened the program, was written for his wife, Maya Plisetskaya, the Bolshoi Ballet's most celebrated dancer during the 1960s and '70s.

Shchedrin, perhaps the last of this century's great composer-pianists, took as his model the ways in which Liszt's piano transcriptions radically transform the most familiar operatic materials. He freely adapted Bizet's famous tunes, complete with harmony, for the unique combination of a large string orchestra and the widest possible range of percussion instruments -- 47 in all -- which were to be played simultaneously by five players.

Shchedrin's exotic orchestration maintains the transparency of the original, while stretching the virtuosic potential of his resources to their limit. The result is a superheated homage to what were already steamy musical materials.

This is difficult music to play well and Kitaenko did a superb job. He made glittering use of the percussion effects, as well as of a wide range of string color and of dynamic. And by leading the music more slowly than American conductors do, he evoked the wit, as well as the high drama and atmosphere, of the musical narrative. What one heard was music for dancers, rather than a merely slick orchestral showpiece.

He is a conductor who deserves to be heard more frequently in this country. His performance of the "Firebird" was magical: wonderfully refined in the gentler music, ferociously biting in the "Infernal Dance," luminously warm and voluptuously weighted in the finale.

Kitaenko and the orchestra gave a gloriously warm and passionate accompaniment in the Bruch.

Bushkov was a good deal cooler. The 31-year-old Russian -- a past winner in the Wieniawski, Tchaikovsky and Brussels competitions -- studied in his early teens with the late Leonid Kogan. And in his aristocratic elegance and restraint, faultless technique and security of intonation, he somewhat resembles that great violinist. What his otherwise admirable playing could have used -- at least on this occasion -- was a little more imagination and emotional commitment.

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