BSO shows no sign of strain

A tough week ends with upbeat music

Music Review

July 23, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

When the players of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra took the stage of the Music Center at Strathmore Thursday night for a summer festival concert, they gave every appearance of normality, after what was probably the most abnormal week of their professional lives.

Then again, the opening piece on the program just happened to be called Facade, so you never know. The orchestra's heavily publicized objection to naming a new music director, and the decision by the BSO board of directors to proceed with the historic appointment of Marin Alsop to that post, must have taken a severe toll on morale in the ensemble.

Having broken with protocol by publicly airing their disagreement with management, the musicians risked being labeled uppity, petty, even rashly insubordinate, rather than intensely concerned about their own place in the organization and their perspectives as artists and shareholders, not just laborers.

Repercussions from the dispute will likely be felt for a long time, both inside the BSO and throughout the community. But however icy the atmosphere might be backstage these days, it's apparent that the business of making music warmly can continue onstage, judging by Thursday's performance. (It was repeated last night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.)

Hugh Wolf, an American conductor who has held music directorships with high-quality orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic, proved an amiable guide through works of a generally upbeat nature. (Upbeat was just what this week needed.)

The original version of William Walton's brilliant, career-making Facade includes recitations of Edith Sitwell poetry to an ingenious background of musical counterpoint. The purely instrumental Suite No. 1, which Walton put together in the 1920s, dispenses with the verses and offers some of the slyest, wryest material from the dance- and music hall-charged score.

Wolf whipped up this musical froth deftly and had the orchestra playing with an effective snap.

When the BSO first announced its summer lineup, young Chinese virtuoso Yundi Li was Liszt-ed as soloist in Liszt's powerhouse Piano Concerto No. 1. Visa problems reportedly kept him from making the engagement, but another young Chinese pianist was available.

Yuja Wang, a student of distinguished keyboard artist Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (Lang Lang had the same mentor there), has picked up a slew of prizes and concert gigs already, and she's not yet out of her teens.

Wang brought facility and feeling to the concerto, if not a very big tone for the thunderous moments or unmistakably personal ideas about phrasing. She was especially impressive in the glittery bits, her articulation crystalline and sure.

A few slipped gears aside, Wolf had the orchestral portion of things running smoothly. The conductor then wrapped the evening up with an anti-humidity fling of Schumann's Spring Symphony.

There wasn't enough expectancy at the start of the first movement; Wolf's approach was too brisk and matter-of-fact for that. But when the music subsequently sprang into action, his propulsive edge proved compelling.

The rest of the symphony unfolded with considerable expressive charm and textural clarity. Lots of the ensemble's playing, especially from the winds, had great character and, under the circumstances, a reassuring cohesiveness.

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