Tilson Thomas inspires magical moments in D.C.

CRITIC'S CORNER - - Music

Music Column

April 25, 2006|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Every time someone addresses the worrisome state of classical music, at least one exception gets mentioned - the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

Since the inquisitive and inspiring Michael Tilson Thomas became music director in 1995, the ensemble has been on a steadily upward trajectory.

A volatile mixture of standard and far-from-common repertoire has proven to be highly marketable. Grammy-winning recordings of Mahler symphonies - Tilson Thomas and the orchestra are putting the complete cycle on disc - have reinforced the stature of the organization.

Whatever bumps there may be from time to time in the relationship, Tilson Thomas and his musicians still seem to click, no small thing in this business. And click they did Saturday at the Kennedy Center in another valuable presentation by the Washington Performing Arts Society, celebrating its 40th anniversary of importing the best to the nation's capital.

The event would have been worth catching just for the opportunity to hear the incisive account of Debussy's Jeux, a brilliant score from 1913 much too little played. The music's duality, with one chord in the 19th century, one in the 20th, was subtly underlined by Tilson Thomas, who had the orchestra responding superbly to the smallest details of dynamics and coloring.

Keeping the French mood going, Jean Yves Thibaudet joined the company for Ravel's Piano Concerto, offering disarming bravura in the jazz-spiced outer movements, exquisite elegance in the Adagio. He enjoyed firm support from conductor and orchestra.

The rest of the program had a German accent. In the Adagio from Mahler's unfinished Symphony No. 10, Tilson Thomas stressed beauty of line as he explored the work's autumnal lyricism.

He could have summoned more power and shock for the climactic moment when a dissonant, nine-note chord emerges like an unearthly scream, but that was a small disappointment amid all the rich expressiveness. Luminous string playing provided particular pleasure.

Siegfried's Rhine Journey from Wagner's Gotterdammerung flowed mightily and, aside from a couple of blurred spots, again revealed the imposing strengths of an orchestra clearly worth ranking among the country's best.

Tilson Thomas was, if anything, even more poetic as he gently phrased the encore, one of Grieg's Elegiac Melodies, the bittersweet Last Spring. The result was magical.

Great Hall finale

Music in the Great Hall, one of the area's longest running and most consistently attractive concert series, wrapped up its season over the weekend at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church with a program built around clarinet, cello and piano.

Naturally, Brahms' Trio in A minor for those three instruments figured prominently. The piece was warmly played Friday evening by clarinetist Fred Jacobowitz, cellist Bonnie Thron and pianist Adam Mahonske (artistic director of the series).

Earlier, the players worked in twos. Jacobowitz and Mahonske collaborated on a tight, colorful performance of the exceedingly clever Hillendale Waltzes by the underappreciated Victor Babin. Phyllis Tate's moderately interesting Sonata for clarinet and cello found Jacobowitz and Thron in close rapport. The cellist's intonation wandered in Stravinsky's Suite Italienne, but Mahonske was again a vivid partner.

Gordon Trust tribute

On Sunday afternoon, Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills presented an ambitious concert to honor Sidney Sherr and Lorraine Bernstein for their invaluable work as directors of the Peggy and Yale Gordon Trust, which supports cultural endeavors throughout the Baltimore area.

The event featured chamber-sized choral and orchestral components of the Annapolis Chorale, led with authority and care by J. Ernest Green. Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms was performed with so much commitment and vibrancy that occasional technical rough patches were easily overlooked. Some weak soloists were harder to ignore in Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music, but, again, the expressive quality of the effort was strong.

The program also held a rarity by Gerald Finzi, the gently shaded Farewell to Arms, which had the benefit of a sensitive guest artist, tenor Benjamin Brecher.

There was also a premiere, Alba and Ostinato, for double bass and orchestra by Tom Schnauber. The neo-romantic melodic and harmonic writing is assured and, other than an over-reliance on wind chimes, the orchestration is imaginatively colored. Jeffrey Weisner was the dynamic bassist, getting a great deal of warmth out of the instrument in the lyrical first movement and articulating the whirling finale with finesse. The orchestra did mostly firm playing.

Journey of Waters II is a recently refashioned 1980s composition by Vivian Adelberg Rudow (who organized the concert). It's built around a big, pop-like tune of assertive banality with words by Grace Cavalieri, intoned here by a few women's voices. Green gave it all a good shot, emphasizing the appealing orchestration, but the net effect was still modest.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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