For BSO, a lushness of sound

Review: From simple openings, conductor Roberto Abbado unfolds complex growth.

March 09, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gave an engrossing discourse on music as an organic substance last night. Each work on the program, in one way or another, involved the dynamic growth of melodic material from small seeds.

Cesar Franck's Symphony in D minor is among the most brilliant examples of this process. The work keeps unfolding and developing, spinning out in new directions, only to wind back around itself as it gains in breadth and height.

The score is not just organic, but organ-like - Franck, a master organist, thought of an orchestra as a massive pipe organ. This symphony is awash in that instrument's thick, resonant textures. Whenever the basses enter the picture, you can envision the composer's feet going for those pedals.

The piece has been rather out of favor in recent decades. Roberto Abbado may be just the conductor to bring it back in a big way.

Abbado, making his BSO debut this week, is one of the brighter lights on the scene today. His firm grasp of the Franck symphony, his flair for giving it momentum, tension and exultant release yielded a memorable performance. (It won't be repeated this morning.)

Although the conductor let the brass dominate a little too forcefully, disturbing the composer's carefully worked out sonic proportions, the overall effect proved irresistible. Abbado built up the closing measures of the first movement splendidly, putting the recently renovated acoustical properties of the Meyerhoff to a terrific test. The last chord simply enveloped the place and seemed reluctant to dissipate.

The middle movement had great atmosphere (aided by Jane Marvine's plaintive English horn solo); the finale, which can turn diffuse, was held tautly together. Throughout, the orchestra sounded rich and cohesive. The strings produced some of their most glowing sounds of the season so far.

Things were nearly as impressive in William Walton's Violin Concerto. Launched by a simple kernel of an idea - heard in the clarinet - the concerto becomes a prismatic fantasy that has the violin wrapping the orchestra around its alternately lyrical and jaunty themes.

Joshua Bell brought his familiar tonal sweetness to the work, making the most of such passages as the evocative mini-serenades in the second movement. Some of the trickiest bits (the concerto was written for the superhuman Heifetz) were not articulated effortlessly, but Bell's playing had considerable panache. Abbado and the BSO backed him smoothly.

To start, there was Rapture by the orchestra's former composer-in-residence, Christopher Rouse. The superbly orchestrated work is like one long-breathed evolution, from gentle rustlings to ecstatic outpourings of good old-fashioned harmonic resolution. Abbado seemed to relish this study in gradations of color and volume; some grainy trumpets aside, the BSO responded in vivid, polished form.


What: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathderal St.

When: 11 a.m. today

Tickets: $26 to $44

Call: 410-783-8000

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