Reveling all weekend in rich and riveting sounds


March 24, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

There may not be a plethora of truly notable conductors, but you wouldn't have known that around here last weekend, as eminent music-makers from Russia (and environs) revved up three different orchestras.

In Baltimore, Yuri Temirkanov led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a richly inflected Tchaikovsky program at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. In Washington, Mariss Jansons and the Pittsburgh Symphony produced electrifying results in the Kennedy Concert Hall a couple hours before Valery Gergiev and the National Symphony Orchestra followed suit in that same spot.

Latvian-born Jansons is in the last months of his seven-year tenure as music director of the Pittsburgh ensemble. Judging by Saturday afternoon's concert, he'll be a tough act to follow.

I can't recall hearing as jolting a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 as the one Jansons fashioned to open this Washington Performing Arts Society presentation. The score often comes off as a charming backward glance to Mozartian days, rather than a full-fledged companion to the composer's roof-raising Seventh.

Jansons made sure you could hear just how imaginatively and unmistakably "Beethoven" is boldly carved into each note, each dynamic marking and, especially, the rich woodwind and brass writing.

The orchestra, with its rich strings and seamless horns, offered remarkably disciplined playing. These musicians sounded as if they couldn't contain their enthusiasm, couldn't wait to share the next burst of drama or humor in the symphony. It was the same in Stravinsky's Firebird Suite.

Again, Jansons didn't take a single measure for granted. And, again, the ensemble did cohesive, brilliant work. The most delicate passages truly glowed (I loved how the horn solo at the start of the finale gently materialized, as if from another realm of existence); the explosive moments registered viscerally.

Yefim Bronfman offered the same level of power and finesse in Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 that he summoned when he played the work with the BSO in January. His Pittsburgh colleagues could not have been more attentive.

The whole concert provided a continual rush of sonic energy and artistic insight. The high continued Saturday night when Gergiev, making his debut as NSO guest conductor, stepped onto the podium (late, as is his habit). He drew some of the brightest, no-holds-barred playing I've heard from this orchestra since the days when Mstislav Rostropovich was music director, but there was plenty of subtlety as well.

Gergiev, head of Russia's famed Mariinsky Theater, took his time in Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, savoring the smallest brushstrokes. The performance never sounded draggy, though, thanks to all that interest in detail and atmosphere. The brass produced solid walls of sound, the strings a consistent richness; excellent sax and tuba solos were among the pivotal individual components; and everyone blazed away mightily at The Great Gate of Kiev.

The first half of the program was a little odd -- just three short pieces, two of them very short. Still, it was fun hearing Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture with such a brilliant sheen, his Dubinushka with such a rousing flourish. Shchedrin's Naughty Limericks isn't really very naughty (or very substantive), but Gergiev exploited its drollery effectively and got a very snappy response from the NSO.

Pro Musica Rara

Locally, both early music and contemporary music have to fight much too hard for an audience. Pro Musica Rara, champion of long-ago repertoire, deserves more support. The organization, which closed its 29th season Sunday afternoon at Towson Presbyterian Church, seems to be getting stronger with new artistic director Allen Whear. This program was a prime example.

To celebrate Bach's 319th birthday, his music was complemented by that of composers who were flourishing when he was born. It was fascinating to hear Buxtehude's darkly beautiful G minor Passacaglia for solo violin, almost a pre-echo of Bach's celebrated Chaconne. Cynthia Roberts was the stylish violinist. She also led the way in a vivid account of Biber's Annunciation Sonata with Whear on cello, Richard Stone on lute and Dongsok Shin on a bite-sized baroque organ.

Rare repertoire by Gabrielli and Froberger filled out the imaginatively constructed, thoughtfully played concert.

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