BSO's Fest gets off to slow start

Sputtering shifts into sparkling music


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

Summertime, and the concert-givin' isn't exactly jumpin.'

Most classical organizations around here go into hibernation between spring and fall, but the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra maintains a welcome presence, indoors and out. The BSO reports a successful al fresco opening on the July 4 weekend that attracted 15,000 to Oregon Ridge.

As for the indoor side of things, that doesn't appear to have set off a stampede to the box office, judging by the quantity of empty seats for Friday night's opening of the second annual Summer Wine and Music Fest at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. (The BSO can claim good company; the second season of the New York Philharmonic's Summertime Classics series at Lincoln Center is drawing modest crowds, too.)

Maybe the fest will pick up steam as it goes along; the closing night on July 29, featuring Beethoven's surefire Ninth Symphony, should provide a big finish.

As for the first event, the quality of the music-making was solid, but the presentation itself left a lot to be desired. For all of the talk by BSO management during the past year about transforming and freshening-up the concert-going experience, it was hard to believe how lame Friday's performance started.

The lights dimmed once, came back up for what seemed like a long while, then finally dimmed again. A brass ensemble appeared at the back of an empty stage, played a brief fanfare by Paul Dukas and departed. Eventually, another small group of musicians arrived to play the first work on the printed program, Dvorak's Serenade for Winds.

After that, the audience sat through another awkward stretch of silence, while chairs were rearranged onstage for the next piece.

During all of the dead space surrounding these initial musical offerings, couldn't someone have delivered words of welcome and a bit of vamp-'til-ready banter to make people feel more comfortable, involved and, hey, maybe even a little festive?

Scottish-born conductor (and noted oboist) Douglas Boyd did get around to breaking the wall between stage and audience, making a few remarks before the remaining items on the bill. That helped, but there still wasn't much sense of occasion in the way the concert unfolded.

Fortunately, the music, chosen to highlight the various sections of the orchestra in turn, provided sufficient kick.

Boyd had the Dvorak score percolating with propulsive tempos and animated phrasing; the players produced a richly vibrant, well-balanced sound.

Elgar's sumptuous Introduction and Allegro, characterized by Boyd as "a life-affirming piece" in a dedication to the victims of the London blasts, revealed the considerable strengths of the BSO strings. Violinists Jonathan Carney and Ellen Orner, violist Christian Colberg and cellist Bo Li were the eloquent soloists.

The entire BSO got a good workout in mostly tight accounts of Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and Stravinsky's brief Fireworks, with woodwinds, brass and percussion setting off particularly bright sparks.

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