BSO raises Norway's flag, with a warm garland of Grieg

Music review


Americans, notoriously vague about their own country's past, may be forgiven for not knowing that 2005 marks the centennial of Norway's obtained independence from Sweden. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's latest program, devoted to eminent Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, provides a good excuse to consult the history books.

Norway, a not-terribly-willing partner in a union with Sweden for more than 90 years, experienced a surge of nationalism that, by 1905, seemed likely to end in war. A plebiscite in Norway on the issue of ending the union left little room for doubt about popular opinion: 368,208 in favor of ending the union, 184 opposed. Political negotiations eventually produced a bloodless solution.

To celebrate the anniversary of that peaceful transition, the BSO not only chose to salute Grieg, but also invited Norwegian guest artists to lend an air of authority to the music-making.

On Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, Norway's ambassador in Washington was on hand to say a few words and, with a Norwegian flag alongside a U.S. one onstage, the national anthems of both countries provided a prelude to the concert.

Occasional glitches in articulation and intonation suggested that the orchestra had not entirely recovered from its recent trip to Europe, but the playing had considerable warmth and character all evening. The musicians seemed to find conductor Bjarte Engeset a congenial guide through some of Grieg's most popular works.

The first half of the program was taken up by the incidental music the composer wrote for a production of Henrik Ibsen's play Peer Gynt. Engeset lavished particular attention on delicate passages, molding "Ase's Death" and "Solveig's Song," for example, with remarkably sensitive shading. "Anitra's Dance" floated by in subtle, shimmering fashion.

Not that the conductor couldn't apply plenty of Peer pressure, too. He drove the famous thundering crescendo of "In the Hall of the Mountain King" very effectively and likewise tapped the theatrical flourishes in the "Stormy Evening at Sea" movement.

At their best, the strings produced a beautifully burnished sound; woodwinds and brass made colorful contributions.

Grieg's sole Piano Concerto, like Tchaikovsky's first, long ago entered the realm of classical music's greatest hits. From the opening torrent to the broad lyrical theme that interrupts the finale's foot-stompin' folk-dance, the piece can't help exerting mass appeal. In the wrong hands, however, it can come off as an exercise in blatant, pretentious romanticism.

Havard Gimse avoided excess at the keyboard, letting the music speak pretty much for itself. The pianist's technique was up to the task, but did not quite have the unbridled muscle power or wealth of tone coloring that can provide extra interest and excitement here.

Engeset kept the orchestral side of the score flowing vividly.

The concert will be repeated at 8 tonight and 3 p.m. tomorrow at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $25 to $75. Call 410-783-8000.

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