BSO's journey down 'Inca Trail' is enlightening


June 03, 2008|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun music critic

Not long into the new century, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra introduced a new series designed to loosen up the concert-giving format (no white tie and tails, extra chat from the stage), and entice a younger, hipper crowd with the prospect of live jazz and martini bars in the lobby.

It sounded like a gimmick, and it looked like a gimmick because it was a gimmick. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Orchestras everywhere will try out new ways to improve box-office receipts and demographics, and the BSO's Symphony With a Twist series is about as good an idea as any others that have been floated around the country.

The only trouble was that BSO planners didn't seem to agree on exactly what the Twist venture was meant to be, how to "brand" it (don't you hate that word?) so clearly and distinctly that it could develop a strong identity and consistent appeal.

Sometimes, it was used to introduce unusual repertoire that cocktail-lubricated audiences weren't necessarily craving. (Remember Tan Dun's Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra?) Sometimes, it was used to offer fare that might just as easily be on a regular classical series, or even a pops one. No wonder attendance fluctuated.

But the Twist series remains part of the BSO's product line, and it remains as promising as it was when it made its debut. Maybe the trick to fulfilling that promise is to come up with more things like last weekend's Twist venture.

A big, happy crowd turned out Saturday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall for a program called "The Inca Trail." It was one of the best Twist concerts I've attended, marked by inventive programming and a lot of flair in the music-making, as well as a mostly effective multimedia component.

Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the Peruvian-born music director of the Fort Worth Symphony from Texas, was the engaging tour guide. He conducted with a minimum of fuss and a great deal of character through a hefty, enlightening sampling of Latin American repertoire, and he drew consistently cohesive, stylish playing from the orchestra.

From a haunting arrangement of El Condor Pasa by Daniel Alomia Robles to a snazzy assortment of such popular pieces as Granada (complemented by sultry dancers Rosa Collantes and Jason Colacino), the program crackled with energy.

This journey down the Inca Trail included some remarkable contemporary fare. Osvaldo Golijov's Mariel, an elegy of darkly beautiful lyricism, provided a fine vehicle for principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn, whose warm tone and eloquent phrasing reached the heart of the score.

Gabriela Lena Frank's Illapa, a moody evocation of an Inca god, revealed a riveting sonic freshness. Diego Luzuriaga's propulsive Responsorio was fun. Jimmy Lopez's Fiesta! had a kinetic kick, with great brass licks and percussion flourishes (only the rather cliched ending proved a let-down). Frank, Luzuriaga and Lopez were on hand to enjoy ovations.

Although the violins sounded a little thin at times, they dug into the program as vibrantly as the other sections. Among the notable solo contributions were those by concertmaster Jonathan Carney, trombonist Chris Dudley, trumpeter Rene Hernandez and flutist Emily Skala.

Harth-Bedoya's dynamic approach to everything - he had the Malambo from Ginastera's Estancia really smoking - made up for awkward silences while explanatory texts were displayed on a screen that otherwise was used to display striking imagery for some of the music.

Singing signup

The BSO's "Oh, Say Can You Sing?" contest, to find young vocalists to perform the national anthem with the orchestra in July, has been extended because of a computer glitch that may have missed some of those attempting to register for an audition.

Anyone who followed the registration procedure but did not get an e-mail confirmation should register again. And anyone between the ages of 8 and 18 who hasn't yet summoned the courage to audition will have until midnight Friday to do so. The auditions will be held June 9 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Go to, click on "About the BSO" and then "BSO Singing Competition."

Baroque concerts

Sunday was my baroque day. It started in the afternoon with the season finale of the Bach Concert Series at Christ Lutheran Church at the Inner Harbor.

The main item was Cantata No. 67, Halt im Ged?chtnis Jesum Chirst. Conductor T. Herbert Dimmock held things together neatly, for the most part; the choristers were in generally confident form; the soloists phrased elegantly; the small orchestra provided steady support.

But the format was too much like an abbreviated church service for my tastes; there was even the equivalent of a sermon, not to mention a congregational hymn (many in the audience stood as they sang along). Call me a raving secularist, but I prefer that events advertised as concerts stick with the concertizing.

On Sunday evening, a sizable crowd welcomed the Vivaldi Project, a D.C.-based, period instrument ensemble, to the Baltimore Basilica for a concert presented by An die Musik and the Basilica's Historic Trust. The tight ensemble delivered a program of baroque fare rich in solo opportunities for founding concertmaster Elizabeth Field, a poised and stylish player.

The reverberant acoustics in the exquisitely renovated church obscured many a detail of the refined counterpoint flowing through concertos by Vivaldi, Corelli and Scarlatti. But the mushy sound could not defeat the buoyant spirit, expressive warmth and technical fluency of the playing.

The program ended with a wonderfully quirky Sinfonia by C.P.E. Bach - Field described it as "an explosion of emotional inconsistencies" - that revealed where music was heading as the baroque era faded. Although intonation got a little slippery, the quality and character of the Vivaldi Project shone through brightly.

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