Festival ends on fun note

Vengzago keeps `Jupiter' spinning


July 22, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Summer MusicFest concluded with a sea of Cs -- three works by Mozart grounded in C major or C minor -- and performances grounded in technical assurance and stylistic sensitivity.

Mario Venzago, the festival's artistic director, has an irrepressible amiability, which could hardly be more suited to Mozart. And he has a way of coaxing a similarly ingratiating manner from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which exuded as much charm and personality as confidence and concentration throughout Friday night's finale at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

The conductor demonstrated an intense appreciation for every note, every symmetrical balance of themes and dynamic contrasts in each Mozart score.

While doing his part in to honor authentic 18th-century practices -- fleet rhythms, transparent textures -- he never got into a pedantic groove. He was too busy having fun and treating music as a living thing. Make that an object of love.

This was most evident in the slower movements of the two C major symphonies on the bill, No. 34 and No. 41 (the Jupiter). You don't often hear so much affection lavished on this material, so much subtle molding of a melodic line and gentle gauging of volume, such delicate bending of tempos to help a musical thought take a breath or reach its summation.

Venzago had the fast bits of both works spinning nimbly, yet always with great warmth. The outer movements of Symphony No. 34 bounded along like a Mendelssohn scherzo; thanks to the sheen of the BSO strings, it sounded like one, too. The Jupiter Symphony had plenty of weight and nobility where it counted; the brilliant finale, with its audacious outbreak of fugues, hit home powerfully.

The orchestra, so responsive to the conductor's ideas in the symphonies, likewise excelled at providing an expressive complement to pianist Robert Levin's imaginative account of the Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor.

Levin tries to re-create Mozart's own approach to keyboard performance. Instead of sitting idly whenever there are no notes written down for the piano, Levin plays along with the orchestra, ad-libbing his way. He likes to come up with his own cadenzas on the spot, too, a practice long abandoned by most pianists.

Actually, Levin could have played more forcefully during those orchestral passages; not much point in getting into the act if he can hardly be heard. The rest of the time, though, dealing with what's in the score (and inserting his own notes even to that sometimes), he made a vivid impression.

Levin's phrasing abounded in nuance, tapping the deep drama of the outer movements, the poetic reflection of the second. The cadenzas were skillful and engaging, though the one for the finale started to drag, cutting into the overall momentum.

For an encore, Levin paid tribute to another of Venzago's favorite composers, Schumann, with a beautifully shaded account of the Intermezzo from Faschingsschwank aus Wien.

As a prelude to the concert, Venzago conducted members of the BSO in a tight, vibrant presentation of Stravinsky's L'histoire du soldat. Rheda Becker was in typically prismatic form as the narrator.

Of particular note was Jonathan Carney's brilliant handling of the violin solos; this new BSO concertmaster has barely begun in the job, and he's already making quite a mark.

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