An evocative score, a dazzling pianist

March 17, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The latest Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program offers two exceptional firsts - the world premiere of an intriguing score by George Tsontakis and the BSO debut of Arcadi Volodos, the most phenomenal pianistic talent to hit the scene since Evgeny Kissin.

Add in the aristocratic presence of James DePreist, longtime music director of the Oregon Symphony, and you're talking a concert well worth a listen.

Tsontakis has built a solid career, no easy feat in an era when audiences react to outbreaks of new music about as calmly as farmers to foot-and-mouth disease.

His BSO commission has resulted in a roughly 20-minute, two-movement piece called "October." The first half is filled with tiny melodic themes that oftengesture upward, like seeds trying to sprout; the second part contains many a downward motion, suggesting retreat, decay. At the end, a new autumnal idea, filled with rhapsodic possibilities, tries to blossom among the strings, only to be cut off abruptly, as if by an unexpected frost.

Tsontakis' diverse musical language is unafraid of either dissonance or tonality. His orchestration is imaginative, with wonderfully thick brass writing that penetrates and punctuates. A formidable percussion battery provides vivid coloring, as do spicy woodwind passages.

But there is more than mere sound effect in "October." A carefully organized progression of suggestive, evocative ideas provides a study on the impermanence of things and the prospect of renewal. It's not necessarily profound, and not all of the music lingers in the ear, but there are honesty and craftsmanship to the score.

Aside from some tentative violins, the BSO played "October" effectively under DePreist's attentive eye.

The conductor lavished similar care on Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2, which provided Volodos with a fitting vehicle to display his uncanny technical elan, refined sense of tonal nuance, and rare musicality. Prokofiev certainly loaded the score with show-off stuff. But there's also a lots of meatier matter to digest, from the wistful air of the first movement to the portentous march of the third.

Volodos refused to settle for display. He made each fierce assault on the keys mean something expressive and found in quieter interludes a nocturnal poetry. The long cadenzas in the concerto's outer movements were articulated with dazzling accuracy and emotional depth.

The BSO seemed to hang on every note; an electric current held the musicians on a taut track.

Between the Tsontakis and Prokofiev works came a probing account of Beethoven's Symphony No. 4. DePreist highlighted its architectural solidity, its alcoves of lyricism and humor. There were patchy spots in the violins, but brilliant playing by the cellos and basses.


What: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with pianist Arcadi Volodos, conductor James DePreist

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Cathedral and Preston streets

When: 8 tonight

Tickets: $24 to $62

Call: 410-783-8000

Web site:

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