BSO's return to Vivat! is lighter, not lesser

Music Review

February 22, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

After last week's doses of intense, internalized drama and heart-on-sleeve emotions, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is offering a somewhat lighter slice of Russian music this week for its second program in the Vivat! St. Petersburg festival. Not lighter in quality, mind you. Yuri Temirkanov's choices emphasize the melodic wealth, brilliant orchestration and wry wit that distinguish so much of the Russian repertoire.

Two items on the bill hardly lack for exposure - Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paginini and Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet score. But the third (which won't be repeated in this morning's "Casual Concert") is practically unknown on these shores - the suite from Rodion Shchedrin's 1961 opera Not Love Alone, which proved particularly rewarding Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall.

Folks with long memories (or the TV Land channel on their cable) will recall the commercial that featured a badly lit, Stalin-era fashion show, with well-fed models sporting the same dreadful, proletarian duds no matter what the category, even "Svim-wear." Many Westerners used to view music from the Soviet era in much the same way - undistinguished, unrelentingly tonal pieces that conformed to the state's gray idea of art. Shchedrin, who enjoyed official favor in those bad old days, proved how creative restricted artists can be. His music may not open up profound depths, but it is hardly bland. (He's still writing impressively.)

The Not Love Alone suite abounds with clever ideas. The composer's mastery of instrumental coloring would alone make it worth hearing, from the atmospheric touches in the Rain movement to the very amusing Quadrille (the aural equivalent of one of those scenes in a Fellini film with odd clowns and over-painted women dancing and prancing). Temirkanov's enthusiasm for the score was evident at every turn, and he had the BSO tightly with him. The level of smoothness and insouciance in the playing was all the more admirable given that rehearsal time had been cut in half due to the snowstorm.

Elsewhere in the evening, some frayed edges, mainly among the wind instruments, reflected that shortened preparation period. But there was still plenty to enjoy.

The Rhapsody proves that you can take the composer out of Russia, but not Russia out of the composer. Although Rachmaninoff uses as a starting point a theme by an early 19th-century Italian and tosses in the ancient Latin chant Dies Irae as an overlay, the result is still pure Russian in flavor and imagination.

The music's sparkling combination of bravura, sentiment and humor found an effective outlet in pianist Dmitri Alexeev, whose abundant digital power was complemented by a wide range of tonal shades and consistently engaging phrasing. He was sympathetically partnered by Temirkanov and, for the most part, the orchestra. The addition of a hearing-aid's high-pitched whistle from somewhere in the hall proved less helpful.

Romeo and Juliet represents Prokofiev at his most lyrical and evocative. Temirkanov chose the second of the two suites the composer fashioned from the complete score, along with a couple of movements from the first, and gave to each scene a vivid pulse. Assorted details in the orchestra's response, starting with the build-up of brass chords in The Montagues and Capulets, could have been smoother, but the overall effect was decidedly potent. The strings offered particular warmth and finesse (flying fearlessly through the Presto section of The Death of Tybalt).


When: 11 a.m. today

Where: Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Tickets: $29 to $52

Call: 410-783-8000

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