Solo wins hearts of Germans

Concerts: The BSO finds a warm welcome in the land of Brahms and Beethoven. All that's missing is a friendly nod from a distant Temirkanov.

BSO in Europe

November 30, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

DUSSELDORF - "It is a great responsibility to play Beethoven and Brahms in Germany," Yuri Temirkanov said a few days before the start of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's European tour. Midway through that trip, he and the ensemble began to honor that responsibility with performances in the country where both composers were born.

There will be two more German stops and a visit to Vienna, the Austrian city where the careers of both Beethoven and Brahms blossomed.

German audiences still take a proprietary interest in the music of their composers; you could read that in the faces of the crowds that filled concert halls in Cologne on Wednesday night and Dusseldorf last night to hear an American orchestra and a Russian conductor perform German music. (The second program included French works.)

Cologne marked the first performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 on the tour. It could have used more rehearsal, but there was no time. The orchestra flew to Dusseldorf from London Wednesday and hopped directly onto buses bound for Cologne; a slow ride through rush-hour traffic left room for only a quick bite before the players were due on stage.

The overall results may have lacked that extra dash of polish and fire heard earlier in other works on the tour, but the BSO certainly had many impressive moments and Temirkanov's broadly expressive view of the symphony carried weight.

Judging by the applause, the locals approved. They coaxed an encore (Deep River), but were far more demonstrative over violinist Nikolaj Znaider earlier in the evening after he played the Brahms Violin Concerto with the orchestra.

His alternately hard-driven and melting account of the concerto was difficult to resist. Same for his brilliantly delivered encore by Ysaye.

Last night in Dusseldorf, the audience expressed nearly equal enthusiasm for Znaider and the orchestra; the latter particularly roused the listeners with vivid playing of Debussy and Ravel.

As has been demonstrated from the tour's beginning, the nature of the hall can make a big difference. Neither the Cologne nor Dusseldorf venue did much to enhance the music-making. Acoustics in the former gave the violins a brittle edge they haven't had anywhere else; the sound in the latter suggested a woolen blanket had been put over the entire orchestra.

What the theaters lacked in sonic quality, though, they sure made up for in visual distraction.

"The mother ship has landed," said bassist T. Alan Stewart, taking his first look inside the Cologne hall.

The space really is very Close Encounters of the Third Kind; a high-tech design places the stage at the bottom of a well, with seats rising steeply in all directions. It's at once cavernous and oddly intimate.

There is a dash of science-fiction, too, in the Dusseldorf hall, which was a former planetarium. The interior is shaped like a giant wooden tent; a cluster of lights at the top suggests a space station.

No matter the venue, the BSO has delivered. Even when not quite up to par, a basic level of discipline and vibrancy has been maintained.

Not that the musicians invariably concur. It's intriguing how they can be their own severest critics; a post-mortem in the hotel lobby Wednesday night was a veritable feast of self-deprecation.

Maybe the orchestra just needs a boost from Temirkanov, some simple acknowledgment of their hard work or an expression of encouragement. I'm not aware that he has said a word to them - outside of instructions during rehearsals - since the tour began. Not even a mild pleasantry about the weather.

On Wednesday, while Temirkanov traveled on the same plane with his musicians for the first time, he kept his distance. It was the same as they all moved through customs.

Perhaps a point will come on this tour when the conductor allows a little crack in the barrier he apparently prefers. No one would expect Temirkanov to become a good-old-boy type with the orchestra (or the public, for that matter), but some gesture of openness could have an energizing effect on an orchestra that still has many a challenge to face before heading home.

More reviews from the United Kingdom speak of a musical kind of aloofness in Temirkanov.

Erica Jeal, writing in the Guardian about the all-Brahms London concert, complained of "little room for fluidity or surprise" in Temirkanov's "muscular conducting," which "let the orchestral opening of the Violin Concerto just plod by" and resulted in a "rather shapeless setting" for soloist Sayaka Shoji.

But Jeal had praise for the BSO's "big, generous sound," "power and brilliance," and "heft of the lower strings."

Covering the Birmingham all-Brahms performance for the Birmingham Post and Mail, Maggie Cotton complained of a "conductor with head in score for the most part, leaving the troops to fend for themselves" in the Violin Concerto. "Little eye-contact from the rostrum did not faze this fine bunch of instrumentalists," Cotton added.

The review also noted brass playing that was "too loud, with no let-up" in a Brahms overture and "a sneaking sense of prosaicness at the outset" of Symphony No. 2.

There was, however, praise for "heroic mellow sonorities from rich lower strings," "consistently fine woodwind, gutsy violins and blazing brass" later in that symphony.

The BSO is off to The Hague tomorrow to give a private concert for one of the major sponsors of the tour, Aegon Insurance Company. Then it's on to France and the orchestra's debut in Paris.

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