A bang-up job for a scanty crowd at the BSO

MusicReview

March 06, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The latest entry in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Favorites Series is packed with just that - favorites. You might not have guessed that last night at the Meyerhoff, though. Judging by the empty seats, a lot of folks must have thought it was going to be a night of Arnold Schoenberg, Elliott Carter and assorted other hall-clearing terrors of modernity.

If they decide to catch one of the remaining performances, they're bound to have as much fun as this audience clearly did. There are good reasons besides the favorites-feast to turn out.

This is the last set of subscription concerts to be led by the BSO's associate conductor, Lara Webber, a spirited, highly motivated contributor to the orchestra for four years. And filling the solo spot on the program is richly talented clarinetist Anthony McGill, who couldn't be a more engaging advocate for the concerto Aaron Copland originally wrote for Benny Goodman.

There's also a gimmick to set the concert in motion. The audience gets to decide which curtain-raiser the BSO plays - Beethoven's overture to Egmont or Mendelssohn's to A Midsummer Night's Dream.

I would have lost money betting on which piece would register higher on the applause meter; last night's listeners preferred Mendelssohn's mix of the ethereal and the earthy to Beethoven's stormy statement. Webber set the overture spinning pleasantly, but I wish the violins could have come closer to truly gossamer playing.

McGill gave a model demonstration of delicate articulation and dreamy tone in the first movement of Copland's concerto, nestling up against the poetic melodies, reluctant to let go. The cadenza, with its increasingly jazzy bite, was no less impressively delivered, as was the spiky finale. Webber kept a generally firm hold on the score. The strings backed McGill with sensitive shading in that first movement, but needed more snap and tightness in the last.

In a sampling of Edvard Grieg's incidental music to Peer Gynt, Webber lavished care on the tender strains of Asa's Death, had the Arabian Dance bounding along crisply, and gradually applied the gas to In the Hall of the Mountain King with particular flair.

Except for a ragged entrance to Ingrid's Lament, the ensemble turned in a well-defined, consistently vivid performance. In the At the Wedding section, viola soloist Richard Field got quite a folksy groove going.

To close (somewhat anticlimactically after visiting the mountain king and his trolls), Webber selected an evergreen Wagner showpiece, the Overture to Tannhauser. She took a straightforward approach, missing some of the music's breadth, but building to all the crowning points effectively.

I've never heard a live performance of this piece where the violins could get through the busy accompaniment to the last noble statement of the pilgrims' theme without making an unseemly mush of it; this was no exception.

Otherwise, those violins and the rest of the band - notably the ever-sturdy trombones - made a grand, cohesive, stirring sound.

BSO

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: 8 tonight, 3 p.m. tomorrow

Tickets: $27 to $75

Call: 410-783-8000

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