Mendelssohn gets hearty birthday nod from Concert Artists of Baltimore

Big musical anniversaries provide instant excuses for celebratory programming. My not-necessarily-thorough glance around the music world has not detected a massive wave of partying for the 200th birthday of Felix Mendelssohn (Feb. 3). The occasional nod, to be sure, but maybe not quite as much fuss as he deserves. So it was nice to find the Concert Artists of Baltimore devoting Saturday's concert at the Gordon Center entirely to Mendelssohn.

Artistic director Edward Polochick is a champion of the composer's Symphony No. 2 (Lobgesang); he led a memorable performance in 2003 with his ensemble. Returning to the work this year, the conductor seemed somehow even more energized by this sweeping music, composed for the 400th anniversary of the printing press. The three orchestra-only movements were tauty shaped, but with lots of expresssive urgency. The long choral finale flowed along in dynamic fashion. The choristers produced a smoothly blended sound and articulated cleanly, even during a terrific dash through Die Nacht ist vergangen.

With one exception, the soloists, all drawn form the ensemble, measured up handsomely. Hyuk Chae, a tenor, offered particularly vivid singing in Stricke des Todes. Another tenor, Peter Lee, and soprano Sarah Berger phrased their solos in the penultimate movement quite elegantly. There were sweet, bright sounds as well from sopranos Julia Ju Young Kim and YooJin Jeong in the fifth movement. The orchestra ...  

turned in cohesive, colorful playing.

One serious problem with the performance: No lights in the hall for the audience to follow along with the texts printed in the program. How many times do I have to preach this sermon? Don't perform wordy music without a) providing the texts and b) bringing the house up lights to a reasonable level (or using projections). I don't ask this for myself, of course. Naturally, I know by heart every literary component of every musical piece in every language ever written. I just feel sorry for the poor folks around me who are ever so less enlightened (so to speak).

The first half of the concert was devoted to Mendelssohn's Concerto for Two Pianos, a sparkling item from the composer's teenage years. The soloists, Shaun Tirrell and Brian Ganz, tore into the music with crowd-pleasing results. Alas, I didn't feel quite so enthusiastic.

Not all of Mendelssohn's music may have that elfin quality he was so famous for, but everything he wrote is elegant, and the one thing I didn't hear from these pianists was elegance. The whole performance sounded too pushy, as if the only object were to play as loud and fast as possible. Even in the slow movement, the volume never really dropped below mezzo-forte. And the mad dash in the coda of the finale was so exaggerated that Mendelssohn's music slipped away beneath all the showmanship. In the Gordon Center, with its great acoustics, subtleties would have registered so nicely, and would have revealed so much more character in the concerto. That said, the technically accomplished soloists stayed remarkably in sync and maintained admirable clarity (except in that supersonic stretch at the very end), and Polochick assured that the orchestra stayed right with them all the way through.


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