Music at Strathmore begins on a high note

Bethesda hall's rich sound is felt from cello to soprano

MusicReview

February 07, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Ten years after the idea for a new concert venue in suburban Washington was planted, the $100 million Music Center at Strathmore opened Saturday night, packed with a mostly by-invitation, mostly black-tie crowd that strode into the gleaming facility on a red carpet.

Patrons schmoozed and noshed before entering the hall to hear congratulatory speeches, interrupted by nearly as many ovations as the State of the Union address, and then some brilliant playing by the center's No. 1 resident, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Joining the BSO and music director Yuri Temirkanov were starry cellist Yo-Yo Ma and two radiant sopranos, Harolyn Blackwell and Janice Chandler-Eteme. To emphasize the educational wing of the center, four music students from Maryland were part of the act as well.

The hall, with its inviting wood surfaces, elegant architectural curves and, above all, wonderfully alive sound, is a first-class space for music-making.

On Saturday, the BSO enjoyed a richer bass response than it gets at Meyerhoff Hall in Baltimore; strings and woodwinds had great warmth and presence; the brass, which can have too much bite at Meyerhoff, blended more smoothly.

As gratifying as it was to hear the orchestra in such a favorable light and operating at full expressive power under Temirkanov's dynamic guidance, the hodgepodge program was not the most inspired calling card for the BSO's entry into Montgomery County. There should have been a full-length, fully substantive concert given the next day for the general public as a proper introduction.

Originally, Yo-Yo Ma was to have played Dvorak's Cello Concerto. Deemed too long and heavy for a party night, it was replaced with two short, slow, plaintive works by Max Bruch -- the Kol Nidrei (his much-loved reflection on traditional Hebrew Day of Antonement melodies) and a rarely heard Ave Maria.

Although Ma phrased them exquisitely on Saturday -- and Friday night at a sold-out Meyerhoff, where the BSO presented much the same program -- they hardly allowed him to bring all of his artistic gifts to the table.

(The prospect of the Dvorak concerto was used as bait last year to gain Meyerhoff season-subscribers, who got first dibs on buying tickets. The substitutions of the Bruch works hardly made an equal trade.)

The Strathmore concert added a work commissioned for the opening by Michael Hersch. There was a lot of grumbling backstage because his contribution -- a taut, dissonant score called Arrache -- was not celebratory. (As if Kol Nidrei were a rouser.) The problem was that Hersch, well-known for his intense style, wrote for the wrong program at the wrong time.

Still, the BSO delivered the arresting piece potently, despite Temirkanov's rush through much of it. No one thought to ensure that the composer could easily take a bow; Hersch was stuck somewhere in the back when Temirkanov gestured in vain for him to come forward.

Two vocal selections lit up the place, especially Harolyn Blackwell's delicious, virtuosic delivery of "Glitter and Be Gay" from Bernstein's Candide. Her words, pretty much lost the night before at the Meyerhoff, registered clearly. Conductor and orchestra had as much fun with the piece as the singer did.

Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 for soprano and eight cellos by Villa-Lobos inspired vivid vocalism from Janice Chandler-Eteme. It was a luxury having Ma on lead cello, joined by three BSO members and four audition-winning students.

The orchestra-only part of Saturday's concert should have started with Beethoven's Consecration of the House Overture (a tradition for new theaters). Instead, Temirkanov heated up chestnuts from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker and Eugene Onegin and, for a finale, led a sizzling account of Shostakovich's slick Festive Overture.

That last blast of BSO power underlined how much Temirkanov can get from his musicians -- and how much the Washington area stands to gain from the arrival of this orchestra and this splendid new hall.

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