BSO begins its tour in a savvy music hotspot

BSO in Europe


MURCIA, SPAIN -- After a sizzling concert in a drizzling Madrid Saturday night to begin its first visit to Spain, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra headed by train yesterday morning to this modest, sunny, palm tree-dotted city founded in the 9th century.

It's on to Barcelona today, then stops in Italy, Slovenia and Austria as the BSO continues its final European tour with music director Yuri Temirkanov.

As has been evident back in Baltimore this season, the orchestra is making the most of its remaining time with the Russian conductor, who winds up his six-year tenure in June. Temirkanov's trademark baton-less gestures and subtlest facial expressions can speak in a remarkably potent language to these musicians.

From the sound of things in the Auditorio Nacional de Musica de Madrid and again last night at Murcia's Auditorio y Centro de Congresos, that communication is at peak fluency. There was an extra charge and spontaneity Saturday night, making it readily apparent that conductor and ensemble had hit their tour groove from the first beat.

The audience for the heavily subscribed Madrid concert series is known for its discernment. No wonder. That series features a parade of international orchestras - about 40 every season. It's not uncommon for there to be two concerts on the same night in that hall, even two different orchestras, one at 7:30 (the BSO's time slot), the next at 10:30, and both invariably sold out.

Although the BSO is a newcomer here, Temirkanov is a familiar presence, regularly appearing with his Russian orchestra, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, or other ensembles. He'll be back in the same Madrid hall in May, guest-conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

But even his biggest Spanish fans probably had never heard Temirkanov conduct music of George Gershwin. And I'll bet they never suspected that, as Baltimore audiences learned some time ago, this Russian can swing.

And he was swinging his way all through Gershwin's American in Paris Saturday and last night, treating the score as seriously as if it were a tone poem by Richard Strauss. He extracted an exceptional amount of picturesque detail from the score, which the musicians articulated with terrific flair. Andrew Balio's sultry trumpet work and the surging underlining from the saxes were among the highlights.

Steven Barta got the Rhapsody in Blue rolling each night with a wicked delivery of the famous, upwardly spiraling clarinet wail. There was snappy work from his colleagues throughout the ensemble. When Temirkanov conducted Dvorak's New World Symphony in Baltimore a few weeks ago, the results were just plain ordinary compared with what he achieved in Madrid and Murcia. He tightened up the drama in the well-worn score, but also let the lyricism shine more spaciously. And the BSO responded with compelling nuances that I hadn't heard before, not to mention a heftier dose of virtuosity.

On both occasions, the enthusiastic houses were rewarded with Elgar's Salut d'amour as an encore. It can sound treacly in the wrong hands, but in Temirkanov's, it's pure magic.

An informal sampling of Murcia concert-goers found no one who had heard of the BSO, but no one who wasn't impressed with the orchestra's playing. One listener, David Garcia, had heard of Baltimore, though. "From movies," he said.

So far, then, nothing but good vibes for the tour. Well, except for a little trouble offstage. At least three musicians fell prey to pickpockets in Madrid, one violinist losing a wallet and passport within hours of arrival.

There may be more brushes with the criminal class ahead. Word is that Barcelona, where the BSO gives a concert tonight and will spend a free day tomorrow, contains the country's most skilled and brazen practitioners of pickpocketry.

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