A sometimes-shaky BSO plays in Palau hall

BSO In Europe


BARCELONA -- This city's celebrated concert hall, Palau de la Musica Catalana, isn't just over the top. It's over the top of the top.

A cross between a baroque cathedral and an art nouveaux ornament factory, this grand building, designed by modernist architect Lluis Domenech i Montaner and completed in 1908, doesn't have an undecorated millimeter of space.

The stained-glass dome in the ceiling, like a Tiffany lamp on steroids, is framed by ceramic roses that also adorn other nooks and crannies. Floral motifs wend through huge stained-glass windows on the sides of the hall.

The upper bodies of dreamy-eyed muses playing ancient instruments emerge in 3-D sculpted glory from curvy gowns depicted in mosaics on the semicircular wall behind a stage framed by giant busts of two composers - thick-mustachioed Josep Anselm Calve, leading figure in Catalan music, and Beethoven, in full-fury face (with Wagnerian horses breaking out in full gallop above his head).

Pillars supporting the balconies sport more mosaic designs and - oh, just come over and see for yourself. You won't believe it until you do.

There were some wide eyes among Baltimore Symphony Orchestra members when they got their first look at the Palau on Monday evening, where they had a quick rehearsal and a 9 p.m. concert.

Too bad the sight of this landmark, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, isn't matched by equally impressive acoustics.

The orchestra, spread out oddly and widely on the rather long, narrow stage, sounded disjointed and dry. The playing, too, was somewhat out of sorts, compared with the performances in Madrid and Murcia, and there was an awkward delay to the concert suggesting backstage miscommunication.

But there certainly were rewards, and the audience was certainly as attentive and appreciative as at those earlier concerts.

This was the one and only performance of a Mendelssohn-Beethoven-Sibelius program on the tour; every other venue chose the Gershwin-Dvorak bill. (A glance at season brochures for resident and visiting orchestras at the Palau suggests that the Barcelona public prefers the weightier side of the classics.)

Barry Douglas was the guest artist for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 and, as he did with the BSO in Baltimore this month, gave the score equal parts drive and warmth. Yuri Temirkanov was again the supportive partner, the orchestra more or less assured.

I moved from the main floor to the upper balcony, the only place with any empty seats, for the concluding Symphony No. 2 by Sibelius. The ensemble sounded somewhat richer from there, though with the brass dominating unduly.

Energy levels were lower in the first two movements than when the work was played in Baltimore, but the intensity tightened for the remainder as Temirkanov dug into the scherzo and then carefully built toward the explosion of the finale's ideal-affirming theme.

Except for the acoustical limitations, the orchestra was back on form, strongly expressive and keenly locked onto the conductor's interpretive signal.

(The night before, in Murcia, Temirkanov treated musicians to drinks at the hotel bar and hung out with them for a while. Rapport between conductor and orchestra, onstage and off, has never seemed warmer.)

As in Madrid and Murcia, the sustained ovation produced as an encore Elgar's Salut d-Amour, the kind of musical flower perfectly at home in the fantastic fin de siecle filigree of the Palau de la Musica Catalana.

After three performances before three different audiences in Spain, it seems safe to conclude that, despite rampant smoking, the people in this country are among the healthiest (or at least most disciplined) on the planet. Except in between movements, you rarely heard even the slightest cough. It was almost spooky being among so many attentive concertgoers. (That audience included 20 BSO patrons who also caught the Madrid performance.)

The orchestra flies on a chartered plane to Italy today for the final leg of the tour - a four-day marathon performing Gershwin and Dvorak in Turin and Parma, then Ljubljana in Slovenia and, finally, Vienna.


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