Chamber season ends with Celtic kick

Review: Guest artist Chris Norman a delight on his traditional wooden flute.

May 19, 2000|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra wrapped up its 17th season Wednesday evening with a pronounced Celtic accent. Never mind that the program at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium began with Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5; you could probably argue that, in spirit at least, the third movement owes a little something to the folksy gigue. Otherwise, the concert was steeped in the tuneful directness of music from the British Isles and, by extension, Nova Scotia.

The latter land was particularly well-represented. Guest artist Chris Norman, something of a Pied Piper for the traditional wooden flute, hails from Halifax. He brought with him the "Cape Breton Concerto" by Baltimore-born Brian Christopher Packham, who fashioned the 1994 work for Norman out of folk songs from the island off the Nova Scotian peninsula.

In three concise movements, the concerto effectively exploits the wooden flute's pastel coloring against a warm palette of string orchestra. Soloist and ensemble toss around vintage melodies ("Donald John the Tailor," "Miss Scott of Usan," etc.), getting contrapuntal mileage out of some and letting others speak simply, with all their original charm.

Demonstrating as much technical facility as expressive nuance, Norman darted nimbly through the outer movements, lingered sweetly over the middle one's lullaby. The orchestra, deftly guided by Anne Harrigan, filled out the nostalgic picture with aplomb.

The flutist obliged the large, happy audience with another folksy piece as an encore, this one of his own devising. In a vivid movement from his "Out of Orkney," also scored for flute and strings, he demonstrated dexterity and insouciance.

Harrigan's idea of bringing Norman into the Brandenburg Concerto did not pay off quite as handsomely. The wooden flute's rather soft edge would have been better matched by an original instrument group; something was not quite right in the blend.

Had the BCO's strings kept the vibrato down more, and had the conductor's tempos not been so sluggish (the first movement felt particularly draggy), the performance might have made a more stylish statement. Still, there was much to admire in violinist Craig Richmond's finely detailed solos and Webb Wiggins' dynamic work at the harpsichord. Wiggins clearly relished the famous first movement cadenza, which hasn't lost its punch after more than two-and-a-half centuries. He made it sound like a spontaneous riff worthy of Bill Evans.

Back on the Celtic front, there was an endearing account of the venerable Hamilton Harty string arrangement of "The Londonderry Air," which gave soloist Ivan Stefanovic, the BCO's principal second violinist, a chance to demonstrate a golden tone and tender phrasing. His colleagues matched him note for note.

Harrigan's affinity for such lyrical material emerged strongly as she led her lush-toned, smoothly disciplined string players through John Ireland's "A Downland Suite," taking time to linger over the bittersweet "Elegy" movement and giving the snappier passages vigor.

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