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BSO's displays roadworthiness in Europe

Now that the jet lag is wearing off, it's time to start evaluating the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's 19-day, 12-city, $2-million-plus European tour. Was it worth it?

Absolutely.

Could it have been even better?

Sure.

But what matters most is that the BSO successfully re-established contact with a European public that had not encountered the orchestra since 1987. And, as BSO president John Gidwitz pointed out on the eve of the trip, great orchestras tour; it's one of the things they have to do to claim and maintain their eminence.

No matter how wonderfully an orchestra may play in its home town, it's important to prove that it can play just as well on the road, in front of audiences that have no built-in loyalties or sympathies.

Reviews count, too, even if the pronouncements are not always favorable (or fair). Invariably, the press carries weight, especially with concert presenters who will have to decide about bringing a visiting orchestra back again.

What people heard from Scotland to Austria was a solid American ensemble. The reviewer of London's Sunday Telegraph would rank it right alongside Cleveland, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York; a notice from Stuttgart also declared that the Baltimore musicians have "played their way up into the ranks of that creme de la creme."

But there were dissenting voices, including a Viennese critic. Baltimore's harbor, he wrote, is "among the most important in the United States. The same cannot be said ... of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra." A Berlin colleague agreed: "To be sure, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is not in the luxury class of American musical ensembles."

Continental contradictions

It's interesting to note other contradictions among the various reviews. One British critic declared that the BSO has "a smooth, well-integrated corporate sound"; another British critic noted an "individual sound - not at all the 'streamlined,' anonymous sound that used to be associated with American orchestras." Go figure.

There were differing opinions about music director Yuri Temirkanov as well. Praise was usually offered for his handling of French works, but when it came to the German repertoire, sniping was common. "The musicians would have responded to more searching interpretive ideas," England's Daily Telegraph said of a Brahms performance, "if they had been presented with them."

The conductor's decision to perform a Beethoven symphony with a full, Mahler-sized string section drew fire in Germany (a leaner approach has been favored in many corners for the past two decades or so); his phrasing of Brahms was considered dull by several writers.

None of this is surprising. Music is in the ear of the beholder. Total agreement on any artistic matter is virtually impossible. But all of the negative words generated during the tour add up to but a fraction of the positive ones, particularly with regard to the basic quality of the BSO.

Temirkanov was understandably concerned about playing Beethoven in Berlin and Brahms in Vienna - "very dangerous," he said. But his orchestra never let him down. Even taking into account a few persistent weak spots in the ensemble, the playing always had integrity and character.

In the area of programming, some of Temirkanov's ideas look less wise than perhaps they did earlier. A British reviewer put it well: "Whoever drew up the orchestra's current European tour schedules should perhaps have realized that a program of three works by Brahms is not exactly at the cutting edge of originality."

Programs that allowed other composers besides Brahms seemed to come off better with musicians and audiences alike.

Audiences grow cold

Temirkanov's encore policy was peculiar. Yes, it's good to leave an audience wanting more, but a single, slow, low-key encore may leave people feeling cheated instead. Several times, instead of reheating the enthusiasm in the hall, the encore effectively put out the fire.

I wish Temirkanov had followed one of the tender encores - Elgar's Salut d'amour or Deep River - with a real rouser. That may be old show-biz logic, but it still makes sense. (Temirkanov's decision never to follow Elgar's stirring Nimrod with another encore made perfect sense; that music really does provide a last word.)

As for another Temirkanov touch - pointedly putting Shostakovich's From Jewish Folk Poetry on one of the Vienna concerts (it wasn't played anywhere else) - it's hard to tell if this gesture against anti-Semitism hit home. The one review to surface so far mentioned only that "songs by Shostakovich" were on the program. Perhaps that slight indicates how much the music stung.

After their European travels, music director and musicians probably understand each other better than ever now.

Players who envisioned more schmoozing and informality from Temirkanov know how unlikely that is; but they also must realize just how much he does appreciate them, in his own way. And Temirkanov surely has a deeper appreciation for what this group can do under pressure, how it can defy fatigue and discomfort to deliver electric music-making.

Last leg a triumph

There may have been some low points on this tour, but the peaks still stand out, notably a brilliant performance in Manchester's acoustically stunning Bridgewater Hall and a thrusting Eroica Symphony in the Berlin Philharmonie. The whole last leg of the trip, with visits to Paris, Berlin and Vienna, proved particularly exhilarating.

In the end, that wasn't quite enough to constitute a conquest of Europe, which still hears plenty of sterling American orchestras and still has an awful lot of its own. It will take another trip for the BSO to get more firmly locked onto European radar. (It will also take more vigorous promotion. Attendance was disappointing in several places - downright insulting in London.)

It will almost surely be a very different orchestra - to some degree in personnel, to a much larger extent in spirit and finesse - that next crosses the Atlantic a few years hence. Or, if current plans get finalized, crosses the Pacific next fall.

After all, Temirkanov did not take this job to guide 100 or so musicians calmly into old age pensions. He expects greater and greater results from everyone; he does not believe there is such a thing as a perfect orchestra. A man who has a hard time admitting a fabulous concert has been anything but "not bad" is hardly about to rest on any laurels.

After the BSO's worthy European adventure, further fine-tuning of the orchestra is as inevitable as it is essential.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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