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Weekend in review, including Baltimore Symphony, Piotr Anderszewski

The weekend's musical activity included another impressive performance by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, led by the always welcome guest conductor Mario Venzago, and featuring an exceptional cellist, Sol Gabetta, in her BSO debut.

The orchestra invariably plays well for Venzago, and it did so again throughout Saturday night's concert at Meyerhoff Hall.

The musicians looked like they were more closely grouped together onstage. Maybe that was just my imagination, but the sound sure seemed tighter and, despite the fact that the ensemble remains below ideal personnel size, richer.

There was a beautifully detailed, superbly articulated, very eventful account of Liszt's Mephisto Waltz to start things off, and an engrossing, downright electric performance of Franck's D minor Symphony to close. The latter piece gets maligned by some -- too overwrought for their ears, I guess -- but ...

I find Franck's way of developing and developing and developing his themes rather fun.

Venzago treated the once-popular score as if it were one of the greatest of masterpieces. His keen sense of rhythmic tautness, attention to dynamic shadings and willingness to let the big moments soar unreservedly paid dividends. So did his playing down of vibrato in the strings. The BSO did shining work.

In between the Liszt and Franck was the deeply poetic Cello Concerto by Elgar, which received an intensely expressive interpretation.

Gabetta's Guadagnini cello sang out the bittersweet melodic lines in a deliciously dark, warm tone as the 31-year-old Argentine-born soloist sculpted each phrase with lyrical power. Venzago was a sensitive collaborator who had the orchestra leaving its own rich mark on this elegiac concerto, one of the most affecting works in all of classical music.

Gabetta responded to the ovation afterward with a mesmerizing encore, the second movement of "Gramata Cellam," a 1978 for solo cello by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks.

This pianissimo movement, with wisps of sound and a central section that calls on the player to sing along wordlessly to a melancholic melody, is a specialty of Gabetta's. She delivered it with such introspective eloquence that even the coughing in the hall subsided. (You can check out this remarkable music below.)

Sunday evening found Piotr Anderszewski, the terrific Polish pianist, giving a recital for the Shriver Hall Concert Series. In between two of Bach's English Suites came a splendid performance of Schumann's C major Fantasie.

Anderszewski summoned plenty of romantic sweep in the most outward moments of this enriching piece.

But he was even more compelling when he turned inward, as in the closing measures of the first movement, when the quotation from Beethoven's "An die ferne Geliebte" ("To the Distant Beloved") -- Schumann's not-so-coded message to his eventual wife Clara -- emerged with time-stopping beauty.

The pianist shaped the songful final movement with similar care and tenderness, establishing a haunting mood that could not entirely be shattered by the persistent cell phone that erupted twice toward the end (complete with recorded voice inviting the caller to leave a message).

For the bookend Bach suites, where he substituted a straight-backed chair for traditional piano bench, Anderszewski emphasized clarity of line and drew plenty of tone coloring from the keyboard.

In the G minor Suite, the delivery of the Sarabande proved especially rewarding. It became a study in diminuendo, gradually moving from fortissimo to pianissimo, with exquisite phrasing at every turn. Another highlight was the playing of the Gavottes in the D minor Suite, with gently sparkling articulation that cast quite a spell.

My weekend listening started Friday night at the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion, where Baltimore Concert Opera drew a packed house for Puccini's "Tosca." I wish I could share the audience's enthusiasm. When the best voice in Act 1 of "Tosca" is the Sacristan's, you know you are in for a long night (I lasted two acts).

I admire Baltimore Concert Opera's spirit and its strong connection to the community's opera lovers, but I have a problem understanding some of its choices of repertoire and artists.

In this performance, conducted by Michael Borowitz and accompanied by James Harp on a not-very-nice-sounding piano, the Cavarodossi had serious trouble with top notes (if he was indisposed, I missed the announcement). The Tosca encountered her own difficulty in the upper register, turning shrill and unfocused when pushing her basically lyric instrument into spinto territory. The Scarpia had enough volume, but not enough finesse and steadiness.

Yes, there definitely were effective moments from each of these singers, and moments when the power and passion of this opera could be felt. But I missed the sense of artists thoroughly at home in their roles and at one with the music.

That said, Jason Hardy was a truly wonderful Sacristan, turning a bit part into a scene-stealer with his warm tone and deftly shaded phrasing that helped the character -- the whole performance, really -- leap to life.

Here's Sol Gabetta performing that intriguing work by Vasks:

PHOTO OF SOL GABETTA BY MARCO BORGREVVE; PHOTO OF PIOTR ANDERSZEWSKI COURTESY OF ASKONAS HOLT

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