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BSO provides antidote to the cold

Call it the sleeper concert of the season, so far.

On paper, this week's Baltimore Symphony program looked a little, well, dull. Not that I wasn't intrigued to hear a performance led by French conductor Stephane Deneve, who has been generating a good deal of buzz for several years now (and whose head of wildly explosive hair rivals James Levine's -- it's grown considerably since the photo at left was taken). Or that I wasn't interested in experiencing French pianist Frank Braley. This is the BSO debut for both musicians. 

But the two all-orchestral pieces on the bill, Ravel's La Valse and Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, have hardly been long absent on BSO concerts. Both were specialities of former music director Yuri Temirkanov; the latter was conducted as recently as June 2006 by current music director Marin Alsop. As for the third item on the bill, Cesar Franck's Symphonic Variations, it's not exactly a barnburner.

So there I was last night, tired and chilled, at Meyerhoff Hall, expecting to be mildly diverted. So much for making assumptions.

From the first rapt, barely audible, barely moving notes of the Ravel score, Deneve had my attention. The conductor went on to push, pull, tweak, finesse and almost pummel the work to create a deliciously eventful interpretation. I wasn't convinced by all of the little tempo fluctuations and phrase-bending along the way, but the music had a hot freshness as it progressed from that misty opening to the dizzying whirl of the coda. The BSO hung on more or less tightly through it all; the rough patches in articulation should be smoothed over by tonight's repeat performance.

When the dancing mood resumed after intermission, Deneve gave Rachmaninoff's brilliant score an equally compelling treatment that combined effective proportions of tautness and elasticity. The conductor paid keen attention to the bittersweetness that seems so much a part of this piece, and he deftly drew out the dramatic coloring of the instrumentation. Again, there were a few unsettled spots in the playing, but the orchestra poured on the tonal and expressive warmth. Gary Louie molded the melancholy sax solo in the first movement to eloquent effect. 

In between the orchestral showpieces, Franck's compact, modest non-concerto held its own firmly. There is a lot of gold in this work, and the longhaired, zero-body-fat, chicly attired Braley (right -- not as he appeared last night) knew how to extract the keyboard portion of it, using crystalline articulation and phrasing of considerable refinement and imagination. The conductor saw to it that the orchestral also fulfilled its role with personality.

All in all, a great evening for Franck, Ravel and Rachmaninoff, and a memorable local debut by two exceptional Frenchmen. The program will be performed tonight at the Meyerhoff, tomorrow night at Strathmore -- well worth braving the arctic chill.   


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