Zinman's warmth brings Sibelius No. 6 in from cold

March 10, 2000|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It may have been unseasonably warm on the streets of Baltimore last night, but things were definitely wintry inside the Meyerhoff as David Zinman conducted the Baltimore Symphony in a crisp and atmospheric performance of the Sibelius Symphony No. 6.

The Sixth Symphony isn't the composer's warmest work; its mood is cool, stark and reserved, coming across like a walk through the woods just before the onset of spring. In other hands, that quality might have made the music off-putting, but Zinman found something poetic, even alluring, in the work's muted colors and stoic drama.

There was a dry elegance to the hushed whisper of strings, a sound that hinted at lushness yet seemed unable to surrender itself to full sonic release. The winds maintained a similar austerity, as the brasses blew through the third movement with cool efficiency while the woodwinds maintained a dark, wintry palette in the closing allegro.

Yet as much as the specifics of sound seemed to withhold overt emotion, the performance as a whole was deeply felt, saying as much through pauses and restraint as through lavish swells of sound. Indeed, the symphony's ending -- which found the string section fading into silence like a dying breeze -- was almost heart-wrenching in its finality.

By contrast, the Elgar violin concerto was as extravagantly emotional as the Sibelius was reserved. Granted, much of this had to do with the rich, evocative tone of violinist Pinchas Zukerman, whose wide, powerful vibrato and rich, throaty tone brought an almost sobbing quality to the work.

This is an incredibly demanding work for the violin, one that not only requires speed and agility from the soloist, but frequently pushes him to the limits of the fingerboard.

Yet in Zukerman's hands, its virtuosity seemed transformed into emotional expressiveness, conveying passion and regret rather than athleticism and flash. As such, he was able to bring an awesome authority to the part, one that placed his sound on a par with the orchestra as a whole.

Zinman's direction was the perfect foil, balancing Zukerman's supercharged bow work with careful control and attention to detail. In particular, the finale offered a perfect balance between discipline and abandon, bringing the emotional subtext of Elgar's score fully to life.

The performance was met with an ovation it richly deserved.

Opening the concert was John Harbison's "Music for 18 Winds," an angular, coloristic work that owed as much to Stan Kenton as to Stravinsky. From the jagged, polyrhythmic pulse of the opening passage to the abstract lyricism and evocative dissonance of its close, the piece evoked a range of contemporary styles without particularly allying itself with any.

Under Zinman's baton, the BSO winds attacked the work with gusto and precision, offering an impressive display of massed colors and rhythmic acuity. But it was the poignant fluidity of the solo passages -- especially the wry, expressive alto saxophone -- that spoke most vividly.

Or spoke to some of the audience. Some shifted their feet and rustled their programs, producing a murmur of discontent that distracted from the performance.

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