To France, with wine and music

BSO kicks off fest on Bastille Day


July 16, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Well-aged music with rich color, a hint of tobacco and a strong finish was served up by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to open its newly christened Summer Wine and Music Fest Wednesday night at the Meyerhoff. Because it was also Bastille Day, the tastings in the lobby were of French vintages; inside the hall, works by French composers prevailed.

As in previous BSO summer festivals, a chamber-music program preceded the orchestral one, and, in a nicely symmetrical touch, the spirit of Francois Couperin put both portions in motion. One of France's greatest baroque masters, Couperin had an unfailing ear for melodic beauty and structural elegance. These qualities came through easily in one of his Concerts royaux, performed with lyrical grace by oboist Katherine Needleman, cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn and harpsichordist Eric Conway.

The sound-world of these courtly dances still lingered when the BSO took the stage later to start off its concert with Ravel's 20th-century homage to his 18th-century countryman, Le Tombeau de Couperin. On the podium was Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena, making his U.S. debut. He seemed quite at home in this gentle, wistful music, eliciting supple phrasing and a very warm sound from the ensemble.

Although Mario Venzago is still artistic director of the festival, he isn't conducting at all this year, which suggests poor planning somewhere along the line. That said, Mena's engagement for three of the fest's four concerts looks like a deft choice.

(Festival veterans with fond memories of Venzago's endearing badinage - and annual apology for his poor English - were rewarded with a little of the same from Mena, who also won over the crowd when his little boy unexpectedly wandered onstage between selections.)

Concertmaster Jonathan Carney was the bright, bold soloist in Saint-Saens' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. The spark of spontaneity in his playing seemed to fire up Mena and the orchestra as well.

Darius Milhaud's jazzy, sultry ballet score, La Creation du monde, performed at the 2002 festival, can swing more freely than it did, but Mena generated enough rhythmic snap. Guest sax soloist Gary Louie was, as usual, a model of tonal purity and stylish note-shaping.

To close, there was a somewhat awkwardly truncated version of Suite No. 1 from Bizet's Carmen. (That's where the hint of tobacco came in, by the way - Carmen worked in a cigarette factory, remember?)

Here, the reduced size of the string section was most noticeable; with half the orchestra currently touring with Linda Ronstadt, the festival has the remaining half - sort of BSO Lite. More tonal weight, especially from the violins, would have been nice, but the music's spirit came through strongly under Mena's lively guidance.

Emily Skala's gorgeous flute solo was a high point in the Carmen suite. In the chamber-music program, Skala joined violist Christian Colberg and harpist Astrid Walschot-Stapp for a shimmering account of Debussy's Sonata for flute, viola and harp, a delicate, moody score that captures the essence of French artistic sensibility.

Summer Wine and Music Fest

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: Wine tasting at 5:30 p.m. today; concerts at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Tickets: $35 and $55

Call: 410-783-8000

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