For BSO, it's a time for heroes, too

Spirit: Works by Brahms and Strauss, planned before the recent terrorist attacks, take on new meaning for musicians and patrons.

September 22, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

We are used to encountering heroes in music, as in novels and movies; last week, we learned about real heroes at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and, most chillingly, aboard the fourth hijacked plane.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's latest program, planned long before our current national nightmare, strikes a welcome chord with two large-scale works that involve heroic struggles - Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 and Strauss' Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life).

Both pieces get under way with prominent use of the horn and follow a similar progression that includes the clear-cut outline of a strong-willed character; a turbulent, battle-like passage; a kind of love scene; and, finally, a good-natured, untroubled state.

To be sure, the second of Brahms' two piano concertos doesn't reflect the same epic conflict of pianistic and orchestral forces as No. 1. No. 2, constructed like a symphony in four movements, is the kinder, gentler concerto. But the way Evgeny Kissin tackled it during his BSO debut on Thursday revealed a lot more than lyrical warmth behind the notes.

There was considerable angst and passion, too - a restless, driving force ready to battle any perceived threat. Even the ordinarily sunny fourth movement took on an oddly sinister air now and then as the pianist kept the heat on.

It was an intense, deeply serious, spectacularly executed performance from a pianist whose superhuman technique remains in a class by itself. If the playing was a little short on delicacy and lightness, there was no denying the visceral appeal. (Kissin was even more impressive in his encore, one of Brahms' Hungarian Dances.)

Yuri Temirkanov ensured a seamless mesh between piano and orchestra, and sparked a complementary level of drama. The opening horn solo emerged warmly; the third movement cello solo needed a little richer tone to flesh out the songful phrasing. A few oboe notes likewise could have been more elegantly rounded, but, overall, the BSO sounded sumptuous.

Contributing prominently to that sound were the violins, headed by guest concertmaster Jonathan Carney, who sits in the first chair of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London. This is the second time I've witnessed his ability to transform a violin section; some years ago, he filled in at the Florida Philharmonic and helped generate a level of tight, expressive ensemble-playing previously unknown there.

Even allowing for recent acoustical improvements at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, there was an extra degree of cohesiveness and commitment behind the playing, a sense of what is supposed to happen in a violin section - a version of follow-the-leader that isn't dictatorial, but mutually beneficial.

The refulgent result was showcased throughout Ein Heldenleben, which also put the spotlight squarely on Carney. The third part of the score contains an extended, challenging violin solo that is meant to portray the hero's love interest in all of her variable moods. Carney nailed the solo technically and interpretively.

In addition to the richness in the violins - and the other strings, for that matter - the performance had considerable merit. The whole orchestra, expanded in size to meet the requirements of Strauss' deliciously egotistical tone poem (he's the hero in question), seemed to relish the assignment.

Some details could have been cleaner, such as the final chord from the winds and a few brass notes that missed their mark earlier, but the performance had an overriding solidity and character. Temirkanov paced the opening statement of the hero's swaggering theme somewhere between the expansive tempo of Willem Mengelberg and the unbridled sweep of Artur Rodzinski.

And, like those giant, long-ago conductors, Temirkanov turned the sprawling work into a coherent statement that never lost interest or steam.


What: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $36 to $88

Call: 410-783-8000

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