Comissiona returns to his beloved BSO

Maestro turns 75, shows his familiar delicacy and grace

Music Reviews

October 04, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Sergiu Comissiona, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's conductor laureate, is back in town this weekend to open a concert series he founded in a concert hall he helped get built. He received quite a welcome last night from the ensemble, which played splendidly - would lovingly be too strong a word? - and presented him with a 75-flower bouquet, in honor of his recent 75th birthday.

There was a hearty Happy Birthday serenade from the orchestra and audience, too, although a better tribute would have been a full house; you could have bowled in just about any direction at Meyerhoff Hall and bruised hardly a soul. Has the "Favorites Series" become less of a favorite with the public? Folks certainly couldn't get a much more appealing program than this one.

To start, there is a gem by Respighi, The Birds, his transformation of assorted baroque pieces into an exquisitely orchestrated suite with subtle avian suggestions. This music requires a rare refinement from conductor and players alike, which is exactly what it got here.

Comissiona lavished care on every phrase, every shift of dynamics or tonal shading, and the musicians seemed inspired by that attentiveness. There was some real magic going on up on that stage, especially in the second movement, The Dove, which enjoyed gossamer sounds from the strings and a drop-dead gorgeous solo from the BSO's new principal oboist, Katherine Needleman. (You can already tell she's going to be a boon for the orchestra.)

The enchantment continued. So did the sensitive solos, including those by Peter Landgren on horn and Steven Barta on clarinet. Respighi is often dismissed as a superficial colorist; this performance revealed how silly that notion is.

Likewise, Haydn's concertos are often undervalued, and certainly under-programmed. You wouldn't make that mistake again if you heard what Piotr Anderszewski did with the D major Piano Concerto last night. This pianist of Polish-Hungarian heritage, making his BSO debut, is one of the most intriguing to emerge in recent years. It's not a question of fingers - there are virtuosos around every corner today - but of imagination. In other hands, this concerto can sound merely pretty and jovial. Here, it also became a work of considerable drama, with stormy surprises and eloquent reflections, thanks to an articulation that never ran out of fresh touches.

Anderszewski's own cadenzas, which approached Beethoven-like dimensions, added much to the performance, putting Haydn's themes into all sorts of arresting new lights. A tentative moment or two aside, conductor and orchestra complemented the soloist beautifully.

Comissiona, who led the BSO from 1968 to 1985, closed the evening with a thoroughly winning account of Dvorak's Symphony No. 8. Unafraid to stretch out the many lyrical moments, he had the music purring, which only made the work's final outburst all the more bracing and satisfying. The orchestra's sound had a real glow throughout, the kind you get from being with an old friend.

BSO

Where: Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: 8 tonight

Tickets: $27 to $75

Call: 410-783-8000

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