Armstrong, 13, impressive

Music Review

June 11, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Two fresh faces enliven the latest Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program. One belongs to a boy, the other a boyish-looking man.

Kit Armstrong, who turned 13 a few months ago, pushes the boundaries of child prodigy status with his uncanny skills as a pianist, composer and (since the age of 7) university-level student of math and sciences.

Norwegian conductor Arild Remmereit, who, even at 43, might be mistaken for a college kid, has become the king of subs in the conducting world.

Recently, he stepped in on short notice for the likes of Riccardo Muti and Christoph von Dohnanyi. Remmereit's latest save-the-day mission had him flying from Seoul on Tuesday to take over the second of three programs BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov canceled due to a back ailment.

("I wouldn't have jumped in if I didn't know this orchestra," Remmereit said Wednesday. "I heard them in Vienna with Temirkanov in 2001 and that was great, great music-making.")

Kit, looking all of 10 and sporting a smile that would have melted even W.C. Fields, won the crowd before playing a note Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore.

His performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 was notable for its polish and poise. Although his light tone left the work's bolder touches unfulfilled, especially in the cheeky, rambunctious finale, the pianist effectively caught the first movement's Haydnesque charm, the second's Mozart-like elegance.

Remmereit gave his young soloist supple support.

When Prokofiev began to write his Symphony No. 7, with its clear-cut melodies and uncomplicated structure, he envisioned an audience of children. He didn't count on adult fools.

Just before the work's premiere, Soviet cultural police "suggested" that the composer add a masses-pleasing big finish to the unexpected, quizzical, fade-out ending he intended for the finale. It was the last time government goons interfered with the composer; he died a few months later.

Time and tastes have not been kind to this Seventh Symphony. A common view is that an old, spent Prokofiev cribbed from himself, creating out of a few tired tunes and orchestral effects a watered-down version of his popular ballet music.

Even the now-common practice of restoring the work's original quiet closing hasn't done much to improve its standing.

The Seventh might not be Prokofiev's best, but a committed, probing performance reveals its substantial strengths, and that's what the BSO delivered Thursday, thanks to the imaginative Remmereit.

The nostalgia and naivete that drive Prokofiev's symphonic swan song emerged arrestingly. The conductor applied extra expressive weight to the first movement's soaring theme so that its reprise in the finale struck an emotional, not just familiar, chord. The second movement's waltzes swirled along with a telling undertow of worry.

For the most part, the BSO offered technically polished playing and a glowing tone.

Things were less satisfying at the concert's start. A combination of Remmereit's surprisingly sluggish tempos and the ensemble's spotty articulation kept Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture earthbound.

The concert will be repeated at 8 tonight and 3 p.m. tomorrow at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. For tickets, call 410-783-8000.

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