Musicians give all in London

Concert: Despite poor ticket sales, orchestra dazzles.

Bso In Europe

November 27, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

LONDON - No orchestra tour of the United Kingdom would omit this city, one of the world's leading cultural capitals. Like New York, it's a place where musicians must be heard and, if all goes well, receive official approbation.

How the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and music director Yuri Temirkanov will fare with the influential local press remains to be read, but last night's performance at the Barbican Centre certainly provided much to savor.

For what it's worth, one of the hall's longtime ushers registered a solid vote of approval. "I make it a point to hear all the visiting American orchestras," he said. "I'm surprised this one hasn't been here more often. It's really terrific, so well-balanced."

He and I were the only ones to hear the whole concert up where the sound is at its richest - in the first balcony, which, like the second one, was closed off due to paltry ticket sales. Sad to say, the BSO played for only about 600 people, all confined to the "stalls" (as the British term orchestra-level seating).

The program was not part of a series at the Barbican; single events like this one are traditionally hard to sell. And, if it's any consolation, word on the street is that all of London's several fine orchestras have been struggling to sell tickets this season.

Fortunately, but not at all surprisingly, the BSO did not let any disappointment at the turnout affect the results onstage.

The players didn't even seem the worse for wear after another day of glamorous orchestral travel. It started in Birmingham, the morning after a concert, with little time for a leisurely breakfast before having to haul luggage out to buses. Then a three-hour ride to London, arriving just in time to make a dash for a snack before being bused to a rehearsal at the Barbican that lasted until just 45 minutes before concert time.

"Temirkanov doesn't let you feel tired," said violinist Ivan Stefanovic. "He makes you give everything you've got all the time."

That's how it sounded last night. There was abundant expressive energy throughout this last presentation on the tour of the all-Brahms program heard earlier in Glasgow and Birmingham. (Some of the musicians have admitted feeling a little overdosed after playing so much Brahms.)

The Academic Festival Overture had an extra crispness in the articulation, and even more of a feeling of camaraderie.

And it was a good night to take in many details in the carefully honed performance of Symphony No. 2 - the sterling pairings of trumpeters Andrew Balio and Langston J. Fitzgerald III, flutists Emily Skala and Elizabeth Rowe; trombonist John Vance's brief, but so telling, solo in the second movement, beautifully shaded like a soft little prayer.

The horns and cellos, in particular, were in warm, confident form. For that matter, the whole ensemble displayed poise and solidity, enough to generate a vociferous response from the audience.

There were cheers, too, for violinist Sayaka Shoji, who returned as soloist in the Brahms Violin Concerto. She once again produced the often exquisitely pure, sweet tone that had been so impressive in Glasgow, and added a little more fire to her phrasing this time. She's likely to make a bigger name for herself soon.

Shoji did not encounter any unexpected drama, as Nikolaj Znaider had the night before. That remarkable crisis turns out to have been even more complex than it appeared from back in the audience.

Just for the record (and for those who can't get enough of these rare and crazy live-performance stories), here's the rundown:

Znaider breaks the E string on his violin shortly into the finale, waves his arms at Temirkanov, signaling a desire to stop. The conductor calmly ignores the plea and points instead to concertmaster Jonathan Carney, who offers his fiddle to Znaider.

Associate concertmaster Adrian Semo hands his violin to Carney so that the concertmaster will still be able to lead the violin section. But Znaider keeps gesturing that he wants his fiddle back, as the finale continues whirling along. So Carney takes the E string off of Semo's violin and gets his own instrument back from Semo. Still with me?

Carney now has Znaider's violin in his hands again and proceeds to put Semo's E string on it. Eventually, during a few measures when the orchestra is playing on its own, Znaider and Carney make another swap, each ending up with his own fiddle (only Carney has put Znaider's shoulder rest on backward, causing another shock, quickly recovered from, for the soloist).

Meanwhile, Semo is stuck with a violin that is missing its E string, but manages to continue playing the rest of the music anyway, working around the shortcoming. So, in the end, three unruffled, even heroic violinists - and one awfully resolute conductor - served and saved Brahms that night.

After a welcome free day, the BSO leaves London on Wednesday for Germany and more adventures.

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