BSO goes for gusto in folksy program

Concert: Guest artist Lang Lang gives a virtuoso performance on Grieg piano concerto

April 21, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Two connective threads hold the latest Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program together. One is the influence of folk music, as reflected in works by Grieg, Dvorak and Prokofiev. The other is sheer, exhilarating virtuosity.

On Thursday evening at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, music director Yuri Temirkanov seemed determined to get as much bravura from the BSO as possible. And the guest artist, Lang Lang, seemed determined to put as much bravura as possible into a keyboard. The result was a concert that snapped, crackled and popped.

Except at the start. Temirkanov took a reserved, sometimes even dull approach to Prokofiev's "Lieutenant Kije" Suite. Passages one might have expected to catch fire under his guidance just flowed by pleasantly; the sardonic side of the score needed more bite.

The ensemble's playing was a little bumpy, but there were rewarding details - Joshua MacCluer's subtly gleaming delivery of the far-off trumpet calls (which had to compete with coughing fits in the hall) and noted saxophonist Kenneth Radnofsky's deliciously mellow contributions.

The rest of the program couldn't have been much hotter.

Grieg's A minor Piano Concerto found 18-year-old Lang Lang handling with disarming ease the most ferocious outbreak of notes, the most tempestuous of speeds, the most thunderous of volumes. With such a thorough technical command, he is able to concentrate on making something fresh out of Grieg's well-worn themes.

Some folks insist that abstraction and restraint are in order when dealing with late 19th-century romantic fare, that personal touches not spelled out in the score are out of place. Lang Lang disproved that puritanical nonsense with his white-hot intensity and unbridled individuality.

He turned the first movement cadenza into a three-act play, producing an extraordinary variety of dynamics and inflection. His soft playing, brought down right to the very edge of audibility, was as striking as his fiercest assaults on the keys. In the second movement, he offered sweetness that never turned cloying; in the third, muscularity that never turned brittle.

Temirkanov's total rapport with the soloist inspired polished, passionate work from the orchestra.

The audience demanded an encore from Lang Lang. He played the heck out of a Scriabin etude, leaving some music in the dust and pushing his tone so hard that he became, momentarily, Clang Clang. But it sure was exciting.

So was the concert-concluding account of Dvorak's Symphony No. 8. Temirkanov was revved up. He underlined the work's emotional link to the composer's popular "Slavonic Dances" (like the one offered as a roof-raising encore), driving home each rustic dance rhythm and folksy tune.

This vigorous approach had an occasional drawback, as in the closing measures of the first movement, when the headlong rush obscured the back-and-forth of brassy bursts and charming chirps in the orchestration. But the second movement showed Temirkanov's lyrical streak. He took particular care pacing that hushed, atmospheric moment when the clarinets gently descend and the basses take over; the transition was magically molded, seamlessly played.

The conductor put his most distinctive stamp on the opening of the third movement; instead of the usual, in-tempo reading, he stretched out the first three notes, prolonging the start of the lilting theme and increasing its charm.

From the start of the symphony to the finale, taken at a fun and furious clip, the orchestra demonstrated terrific polish and expressive warmth. The cellos sang out warmly; golden solos, especially from flutist Emily Skala and horn player David Bakkegard, capped the sparkling performance.

Concert

What: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with pianist Lang Lang and conductor Yuri Temirkanov

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Cathedral and Preston streets

When: 8 tonight

Tickets: $24 to $62

Call: 410-783-8000

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