Delightful departures from the mainstream

Apo Hsu and BCO score with two lesser-aired works

MusicReview

March 05, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

As the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra continues grading music-director candidates - four finalists, out of 177 applicants, are guest-conducting this season - I wonder if any will get extra-credit points. Apo Hsu, who led Wednesday's concert at Kraushaar Auditorium, deserves a few for her programming choices.

Three of the four items were from the corners of the repertoire, a couple far out in left field. Given all the play-it-safe concerts these days, such departures cannot be praised enough. I might be inclined to take back one of those extra points, however, given what turned out to be a ho-hum opener - Robert Ward's Symphony No. 6.

Ward, who wrote one of the most effective American operas (The Crucible) and also one of the most forgettable (Minutes Till Midnight), has attractively scored this symphony for strings, woodwinds and piano.

The style here is folksy, in a vaguely Copland-esque sort of way. But for all of its down-home tunes and spirited rhythms, the symphony doesn't make much of a lasting impression. And what's up with those tacky lounge-act endings for the first and last movements?

Still, Hsu, music director of the Springfield Symphony in Missouri, approached the score with enthusiasm and elicited a supple response from the BCO.

An orchestral program that features two sizable bassoon works is a very rare thing. A concerto by Vivaldi and a colorful creation from 1933 by Villa Lobos showcased the technical agility, mellow tone and thoughtful phrasing of Bryan Young, an active soloist and member of the Peabody Conservatory's preparatory faculty.

Young negotiated Vivaldi's busy lines with an understated elegance. Except for some wiry violin moments, the ensemble backed him smoothly; having a bass lute player filling in the harmonies was a welcome novelty.

Ciranda das sete notas finds Villa Lobos giving the bassoon a good workout, with lots of his trademark touches of Brazilian folk music. Toward the end, two string basses provide a softly rocking motive while the bassoon spins out seductive phrases; that passage inspired particularly beautiful playing.

To close, Hsu turned to a staple, Schubert's Symphony No. 5, which sounds like what a reincarnated Mozart would have composed.

The conductor's tempos were well judged to let the music move with a graceful propulsion, and she paid attention to the shape and character of phrases. There was a momentary breakdown in communication in the midst of the Menuet, though; a few iffy horn entrances also got in the way. But, on the whole, it was an engaging performance that played to the BCO's considerable strengths.

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