Concert full of shining moments

Review: Revisiting 20th-century French music, Baltimore Chamber Orchestra played its programs with charming finesse.

March 02, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra spent most of Wednesday evening luxuriating in the polychromatic realm of 20th-century French music. It was a substantive and rewarding venture.

For this concert at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium, conductor Anne Harrigan came up with a mix of serious, sensual and lighthearted repertoire that had in common a certain subtlety of expression.

True, Darius Milhaud's "La boeuf sur le toit" is not without blatant effects - a rollicking Brazilian tune that keeps coming back for one more whirl round the dance floor, all sorts of piquant dissonances - but there's still something refined about it.

Harrigan had the ensemble bouncing through the piece with a good deal of character, if not always tight coordination. The woodwinds could have projected their spicy little answer to that recurring Brazilian tune more forcefully, and the violins and cellos had some trouble sustaining a firm tone. But the performance caught the tastefully zany element of the score quite engagingly.

Signs of technical unevenness pretty much vanished after that. The strings, in the program's single departure from French material, phrased David N. Baker's "Pastorale" with admirable warmth and cohesiveness.

This tender American work begins with a simple ascending scale that comes close to turning trite, then seamlessly leads into a rich, almost bluesy reflection of considerable eloquence. That scale returns in different guises to hold the gently flowing music together. Harrigan let phrases breathe, tapping the poetic weight of Baker's darkly beautiful chords.

Great instrumentation

The trombone doesn't get many chances to step out front; Henri Tomasi's Trombone Concerto provides one of the best reasons to do so. It's somewhat like Aaron Copland's Clarinet Concerto in the way it makes understatement the rule, rather than the exception.

From the trombone's opening statement, which has an intriguing similarity in outline to Tommy Dorsey's theme song, "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You," to the politely buoyant finale, the concerto achieves a remarkable combination of elegance and momentum.

The solo instrument is required to demonstrate as much musicality as bravura, which was no problem for Chris Dudley, principal trombonist for the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra and associate principal for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Dudley's suave tone and superbly clear articulation were matched by keenly communicative phrasing. He was solidly supported by the ensemble and Harrigan, who gave careful consideration to myriad nuances in the first movement's lilting waltz and jazzy insinuations in the remainder of the concerto.

Enchanted closing

The concert closed with perhaps Maurice Ravel's most exquisite creation, the "Mother Goose Suite." Until the majestic closing passages, there is hardly a loud note or bold gesture in the piece. The innocence of childhood mixes with the nostalgia of older age to create music that tenderly floats along, like the soundtrack to a dream.

Harrigan's immersion into this ethereal world was total, and the players were with her the whole time, producing a shimmering, smoothly balanced sound. She molded the suite with exceptional finesse, never losing the long line even while savoring the slowest, most wistful moments.

And when she held onto the last chord of the concluding movement, "The Enchanted Garden," it was clear she regretted having to break the spell.

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