Mena leads gripping BSO program

Music Review


Beethoven is making two appearances with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this week, one as the composer of the kinetic Symphony No. 7, the other as a specter, haunting the searing Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss. In each case, the effect is gripping.

On the podium is Juanjo Mena, the Spanish conductor who endeared himself to musicians and audiences in his debut at the BSO's summer festival in 2004. He's a natural, stylish communicator who gets results. (That said, the idea of billing the current program as "Spanish Sensation" does him and the music a disservice. Chalk it up to the marketing silliness that troubles the classical music world.)

Mena is working with only half an orchestra, just as he did at his debut. I hope someday he'll get a chance to stand in front of the whole group. Back in '04, the reason was that the other half of the ensemble was touring with Linda Ronstadt; this time, it's because the BSO launched a separate chamber orchestra series the same week.

Those of us who went to the Music Center at Strathmore on Thursday night found Mena and his half of the BSO; folks at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall found another conductor and another program the same night. Mena's program moved to Baltimore last night and will be repeated there through the weekend.

Strauss wrote Metamorphosen, scored for 23 string instruments, just as the Third Reich was being crushed. He expressed here not just the painful loss of so many physical things that were an integral part of his life -- great German cities and their opera houses, destroyed in the war -- but the realization that the noble side of German culture had been appallingly dishonored by his own countrymen.

By quoting the Funeral March from Beethoven's Eroica in Metamorphosen, Strauss creates a direct link to that cultural legacy, turning the piece into a profound memorial. Traces of Wagner and previous compositions by Strauss permeate the score, adding to the elegiac impact.

Mena deftly drew out the anguish and the ineffable beauty of Metamorphosen, without exaggerating either. A few intonation discrepancies aside, the playing by the BSO strings generated a terrific emotional pull.

For Beethoven's Seventh, the full complement (or full half-complement) of the orchestra was seated in a tightly packed formation that effectively concentrated the sound as Mena fashioned a fleet, bracing, finely nuanced account. The musicians delivered polished, dynamic work.

They also provided supple, responsive backup for one of their own, principal flutist Emily Skala, in Joaquin Rodrigo's Fantasia Para un Gentilhombre (arranged by James Galway from the original guitar/orchestra piece). Skala articulated the neo-baroque lines with pinpoint clarity and a silken tone, easily conjuring up the atmosphere of courtly elegance and nostalgia in the score.

Several colorful contributions by individual players in the orchestra, among them oboist Joseph Turner, enhanced that atmosphere under Mena's ever-attentive guidance.

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

Baltimore Chamber

The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra opened its season Wednesday night at Goucher College sounding sturdy and committed.

Music director Markand Thakar paid attention to the subtlest details in each item on the attractive program and favored gentle propulsion over flooring it.

His spacious reading of the suite from Faure's incidental music to Pelleas et Melisande enabled its pastel shades to glow nicely. The conductor also tapped the charms of Bizet's youthful, buoyant Symphony in C Major, giving the Adagio an extra degree of breathing room and warmth.

A few minor smudges aside, the ensemble offered admirable cohesiveness and style in both of these French gems.

In between came a tight, eloquent performance of Beethoven's Triple Concerto with a vibrant set of guest artists -- violinist Andy Simionescu, cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Micah Yui.

The soloists, well-matched in temperament, produced a telling combination of expressive personality and technical sparkle, especially in the dancing finale. Thakar and the ensemble proved to be attentive partners.

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