Vibrancy of Tortelier, BSO resonates loud and clear

Music column

April 28, 2008|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Had the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performed its latest program on the other side of the Atlantic over the weekend, it might have found itself in severe legal trouble.

Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier encouraged the BSO to pump out the volume Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to an extent that could have run afoul of European Union rules governing noise levels in the workplace, rules that have just been extended to the music and entertainment fields. (That's already causing some headaches - earaches, I guess - over there. At least one orchestra and opera company have had to make difficult changes for when the decibel levels got too high.)

Not that I'm complaining. I'm warped enough to believe that nothing can be too loud - or too soft. Or too fast or too slow, for that matter. So Friday's concert, which also hit some notable levels of soft along the way, not to mention fast ones, proved to be quite the attention-keeper.

Tortelier is always a welcome guest. He's a fundamentally classy conductor, yet never overly studied and certainly not stuffy. He knows how to maintain a sense of spontaneity in music-making, a quality the BSO clearly relishes.

Expressive synergy between podium and orchestra flowed all night, starting with the off-beat opening work, Richard Yardumian's Armenian Suite. That surname will be familiar to longtime BSO watchers. The composer's daughter, Miryam Yardumian, is retiring at season's end after 19 remarkable years in artistic administration with the orchestra.

The Philadelphia-born Richard Yardumian wrote the Armenian Suite for eminent conductor Eugene Ormandy, a champion of his music, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which gave the premiere in 1954.

Based on folk songs the initially self-taught composer heard from his mother, the seven-movement suite reveals, above all, a deft command of orchestral coloring. From the gentlest hue to bright, sparkling shards, the score is alive with aural activity. A little more in the way of development would be welcome; most of the movements are so brief that the distinctive melodies barely have time to register before they evaporate.

The attractive piece was vividly performed, and the energy it generated set the stage nicely for Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 1.

This is an aggressive, assertive opus, as much about showing off - it was Prokofiev's parting shot upon graduating from conservatory - as it is about investigating how to put various themes through interesting hoops. Deliberately provocative in its harmonic language and often pugilistic writing for the keyboard, the concerto understandably shook up many of its first listeners in 1914. It's still pretty startling.

The music got an exciting workout Friday from pianist Yuja Wang, with plenty of supporting fire from Tortelier and the orchestra.

The Beijing-born soloist made her impressive BSO debut in the summer of 2005, when she was still a teen. Now barely into her 20s (she's finishing up her studies with Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia this year), Wang is disarmingly at ease with the mechanics of playing, even in such a thorny concerto as this, but also attentive to possibilities beyond perfection of note-production.

She proved particularly effective in the subtler passages of the score, applying a delightful, gossamer touch. In beefier and noisier portions that included orchestral action, she was not helped by Tortelier, who let the ensemble blare away at will, but she had a chance to show muscle in the cadenza.

The pianist acknowledged the audience's vociferous reaction with two encores, each chosen for maximum bravura. The witty, thunderous transcription of Mozart's Rondo alla Turca by Arcardi Volodos was delivered with abundant panache. Wang pushed Rachmaninoff's transcription of Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee into supersonic speed, bringing the house down yet again. It was lots of fun, but it would have been nice to hear the pianist in a real contrast. Maybe next time.

The concert closed with Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz. Tortelier treated the warhorse to an eventful performance full of character and fine detail. There was abundant mystery and drama in the opening movement, and a kind of tense elegance in the waltz.

The "In the Country" movement unfolded most poetically, with exquisite call-and-answer playing from English horn soloist Jane Marvine and, offstage, oboist Michael Lisicky. Tortelier ensured that each appearance of the symphony's idee fixe registered tellingly, nowhere more so than its sudden interruption of that pastoral scene.

All of the brassy, percussive power in the final two movements was unleashed, along with great splashes of atmosphere, as the conductor guided his thoroughly responsive forces - and pushed the volume all the way up to neighbor-rattling setting.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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