Thakar opens season in bid for job with chamber orchestra


November 07, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

When Anne Harrigan announced last year that she would step down as founding music director of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra after the 2003-2004 season, the pressure was on. The organization owes its very existence and a lot of its personality to Harrigan, who devoted two decades to guiding it into a very respectable slot on the local cultural scene. In many ways, she couldn't help but be a tough act to follow.

But follow it someone will. Perhaps Markand Thakar, the first of four finalists for music director who will be heard this season with the BCO. As part of this public auditioning process, the candidates are meeting orchestra supporters in informal luncheons and giving pre-concert talks. And audience members can fill out evaluation forms on each conductor they hear.

Thakar, music director of the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra and co-director of the graduate conducting program at the Peabody Institute, opened the BCO's season Wednesday night at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium with a program that played to the ensemble's strengths, as well as his own. He brought an impressive level of clarity and balance to each work, his unfussy gestures translating into generally smooth music-making.

To open, there was Ravel's delicious fantasy on themes of childhood, the Mother Goose Suite. A couple of seasons ago, Harrigan led the orchestra in an admirable account of the piece. Thakar took similar care to let the luminous music unfold with natural grace and abundant nuance. The slow crescendo in the finale was very effectively judged, with plenty of transparency still left at the peak. It was easy to appreciate just how solid the orchestra, with its many Baltimore Symphony members, remains at heart. The strings, in particular, summoned a warm, refined sound (excepting a few iffy, upper-register notes from the concertmaster).

Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, with its sublime mix of elegance, drama and high jinks, fired up soloist Brian Ganz. His crystalline articulation and strong rhythmic pulse proved a tight fit for the score. Some of his playing, especially from the left hand, could have used greater firepower, some of his phrasing extra color. But this was an accomplished, thoughtful performance just the same. Thakar kept things nicely dovetailed and enjoyed a crisply attentive response from the ensemble.

The conductor's ear for detail served him well in Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4. Everything was in its place, but almost too neat and polite, especially in the outer movements, where his tempos were just shy of the edge-of-your-seat speed that can make this music really sizzle. The inner movements, though, blossomed nicely from Thakar's lyrical touch.

An occasional unfocused note and a lack of presence from the violas and basses proved to be minor matters in light of all the spirited, cohesive playing. The BCO sounded very much like an orchestra with a future. It will be interesting to find out who it will share that future with; the next finalist is due in January.

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