Melody from the BSO, sparks from the piano

MusicReview

November 08, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Mozart and Tchaikovsky lived roughly a century apart - and were light-years apart emotionally - but had in common an effortless gift for ear-catching melody. Although Mozart could do infinitely more with his melodies than Tchaikovsky (or anyone else, for that matter), Tchaikovsky, at his best, could mold ideas into structures of Mozartean proportion and symmetry.

That's one good reason to pair these two composers on a program, as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has done. Another is that Tchaikovsky positively worshiped Mozart's music. (Mozart probably would have admired a lot of Tchaikovsky's, too.)

Originally, BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov was to have been on the podium for this dual feast of melodic invention, but a medical matter sidelined him. (He's fine, and due back next week.) It was impossible not to miss him last night at Meyerhoff Hall. His stand-in, the orchestra's associate conductor, Lara Webber, is a hard worker with sound instincts who has acquitted herself well in front of this ensemble on previous occasions. But she is not - at least not yet - an interpreter with a consistently distinctive spark, or the kind of leader who can automatically galvanize players into exceeding their own strengths.

What the smallish audience got last night was poised, perfectly sensible conducting and perfectly respectable playing from the orchestra. The music, however, rarely lifted off of the page and took flight, even in the most spirited excerpts from Tchaikovsky's beloved ballet, The Nutcracker.

The Mozart half of the program, which began with pleasant-enough account of the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, received a welcome boost when British pianist Christian Blackshaw made his BSO debut in the Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor. It was only a couple of weeks ago that a Mozart piano concerto (No. 25) received an exceptionally elegant performance at the Meyerhoff, in that case with Richard Goode joining the BSO. Blackshaw was every bit as satisfying, if not more so.

The stormy side of the outer movements found the pianist producing plenty of fire and character. But he was doubly impressive in the Romanza movement, his exquisite control of dynamics and unfailingly imaginative phrasing providing a study in aural poetry. Throughout, his playing had a patrician quality that seemed to inspire considerable sensitivity from the orchestra. Webber provided attentive partnering.

The Nutcracker extracts - a large portion of Act 2, from Scene 10 to the finale - include some of Tchaikovsky's most inspired writing. His fantasy land is a place for adults, not just children; for sighs and regrets, not just smiles.

Webber missed some opportunities to bring out the depth of feeling that runs through this music, especially in the closing Pas de deux, and also kept the lid on the more exhilarating passages. Even so, it's always enjoyable being reminded of the composer's rich imagination. And, once past an off-kilter opening chord from the brass, there was a good deal to savor in the orchestra's efforts, notably from within the woodwind section.

Incidentally, curtains have been placed behind and above the orchestra in an acoustical experiment. That didn't seem to alter the sound in the Mozart much, but I detected some loss of resonance later on.

BSO

Where: Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: 8 tonight, 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $27 to $75

Call: 410-783-8000

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