BSO offers taste of France

Review: George Pehlivanian charms audiences with works by Bizet, Berlioz and Saint-Saens.

May 12, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, recently immersed in Russian, Czech and Norwegian music, is turning its attention to French fare this weekend and made a filling meal out of it.

The chef is George Pehlivanian, a talented American with a French connection - he won a conducting competition in France a decade ago. And when he last visited the BSO in 1999, it was with a French twist, too - music by Saint-Saens, who's on this bill, along with Berlioz.

Saint-Saens is represented by one of his infrequently played pieces, the Piano Concerto No. 4. As Thursday's concert at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall demonstrated, there really is no good reason why the score is ignored. It has going for it an interesting structural shape - four movements masquerading as only two - and some clever manipulation of themes. A dash of wit brings the music to an effective boil in the closing portion, when a hymn tune turns into a punchy folk song.

Awadagin Pratt is just the sort of pianist to bring out the concerto's strengths. He provided abundant firepower when called for (his trademark, unorthodox manner of sitting very low at the keyboard doesn't hinder his aim or velocity), and plenty of lyrical finesse, too.

The vibrancy of Pratt's playing was closely matched by the BSO. Other than a touch of graininess in the violins, there was a warm, colorful sound from the ensemble as Pehlivanian guided things along with admirable attention to subtle details.

Such attentiveness also characterized the conductor's handling of Bizet's "Symphonie fantastique," which emerged with an unusual degree of clarity and cohesion.

This wild and crazy work, based on the early-19th century equivalent of an acid trip, sometimes loses its thread in performance, or gets overwhelmed by all the descriptive bits. Pehlivanian concentrated first on the sheer ingenuity of the music, making it possible to listen abstractly to the way Berlioz sets up and delivers thematic ideas, the way he gives them such incredible vividness by means of instrumental coloring.

The conductor's taut tempos and interest in bold dynamic contrasts also ensured an eventful romp through the score; even the potentially somnolent "In the Country" movement had an underlying energy.

The grainy aspect still showed up in the violins, but not enough to mar the general sheen of the string section. The woodwinds outdid themselves in both subtle and blatant passages; Jane Marvine delivered the plaintive English horn solo in the third movement with great tenderness, answered in kind by oboist Jim Ostryniec from the highest balcony. The brass blared and snorted their way delightfully in the "March to the Scaffold," while the percussion battery let loose with fierce accuracy.

This morning's final performance includes the Saint-Saens concerto and three movements of the Berlioz.

Concert

What: BSO with pianist Awadagin Pratt

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Cathedral and Preston streets

When: 11 a.m. today

Tickets: $18 to $37

Call: 410-783-8000

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