Symphony chorus not up to level of orchestra

Music review

April 14, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert last night at the Meyerhoff was a real show of strengths -- but not, unfortunately, equal strengths.

With conductor Thomas Wilkins at the podium, the BSO had ample opportunity to demonstrate its power and versatility. In Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks," its sound was light and crisp, with a vivacity that bordered on effervescence; in Respighi's "The Pines of Rome," it was sumptuously virtuosic. Hearing them in these works, it was easy to understand why the BSO is ranked among the nation's top orchestras.

But the show wasn't the orchestra's alone, as the other two works offered -- Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms" and Verdi's "Te Deum" -- also required the services of the Baltimore Symphony Chorus. And the chorus is not at the same level as the orchestra.

That was particularly obvious in the Bernstein. Wilkins has a wonderful understanding of the work, and is able to bring out its wit and vivacity without undercutting the score's solemnity. In his hands, the Israeli folk elements in the first section seemed to spring from the very heart of the text: "Hariu l'Adonai kol haarets" ("Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands").

Though the orchestra vividly conveyed that message, the chorus was not so joyful or noisy, leaving the performance out-of-balance. Things got better as the work progressed, but not enough.

Verdi's "Te Deum" was more suited to the singers. Granted, it offers fewer points at which the voices must compete on an equal level with the instruments, but even so the chorus was able to hold its own against the brass, as it sang "Tu Rex gloriae, Christe "

Still, the evening's most satisfying moments were purely orchestral. The "Music for the Royal Fireworks" was a delight, a very British reading that emphasized the lushness of the strings, the creaminess of the woodwinds and the crackle of the trumpets, yet took care with the inner details, deftly emphasizing Handel's counterpoint and keeping the string sound light enough that the harpsichord was always audible.

As for the Respighi, "tour de force" barely begins to describe the effect Wilkins brought forth. It wasn't just the spine-chilling might of the closing section, "The Pines of the Appian Way"; there was enough poignancy in Steven Barta's clarinet solos to make "The Pines of the Janiculum" equally affecting.

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