BSO salutes the Bach Family; Jerusalem Quartet makes Shriver Hall debut

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
From the BSO msuic by Johann Sebastian and two chips off the old Bach.

The pesky cold did not prevent a decent-sized house from turning out for Sunday afternoon's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert at the Meyerhoff, or the Jerusalem Quartet's Shriver Hall debut Sunday evening. In both cases, intrepid listeners were nicely rewarded.

Nicholas McGegan, a popular BSO guest conductor, was on the podium for a lively assortment of works by Johann Sebastian and two chips off the old Bach.

Acoustics at the Meyerhoff can turn a little cavernous when a small complement of players is onstage (and every seat in the hall is not filled), so some contrapuntal details blurred during the concert. But that proved a minor issue in light of all the genial, expressive music-making.

Bach the father was the focus of the first half. McGegan took the Orchestral Suite No. 4 at a good clip, but didn't stint on elegance of line. The ensemble sounded vibrant and tightly connected to the music crisp contributions from the trumpets proved especially telling. 

The Concerto for Two Violins put the spotlight on concertmaster Jonathan Carney and associate concertmaster Madeline Adkins. They delivered superbly blended playing in tone and temperament; even their occasional slides were neatly matched. The violinists also enjoyed supple rapport with conductor and colleagues throughout, including the nearly breathless finale.

Bach's offspring had the attention for the remainder of the afternoon. From Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, there was a modestly interesting Symphony in E-flat. The playing was not entirely tight, but full of graceful nuance.

Johann Christian Bach's exceedingly charming Sinfonia Concertante in C, shaped with great sensitivity by McGegan, provided a welcome reminder of that composer's worth (and strong influence on Mozart).

Just as welcome was the solo opportunities the piece provided for four BSO players -- acting assistant concertmaster Rui Du, principal cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski, principal flutist Emily Skala and oboist Michael Lisicky. They offered considerable tonal tenderness and stylish phrasing, interacting seamlessly with each other and the rest of the ensemble.

From Meyerhoff, it was off to Shriver, where, due to a travel delay, the scheduled artists arrived around the same time as the audience. A lost suitcase meant that one of the Jerusalem Quartet members had to perform a little dressed down -- jeans and a sport coat -- but that obviously didn't matter a bit.

The concert was delayed for 10 minutes or so to let the players regroup. If they felt any stress, they showed no evidence of it in the technically poised, finely balanced performance of Haydn's G minor Quartet ("The Rider") at the top of the program.

The burnished sound of the ensemble proved as impressive as the incisive phrasing, nowhere more so than in the waltzing second theme of the opening movement, which could not have been more subtly inflected. 

I was unable to stay for the finale piece, Schubert's profound "Death and the Maiden" Quartet, but I did get to enjoy a brilliant account of Erwin Schulhoff's Five Pieces from the early 1920s.

The Czech composer had extraordinary gifts that would no doubt have continued to develop had he not died at the age of 48 in a Nazi concentration camp. These short works, each one related to a dance form, capture Schulhoff's abundant imagination, color and wit.

The Jerusalem Quartet extracted those characteristics with terrific flair, notably the wry salute to Johann Strauss in the opening movement and the wild drive of "Alla Czeca" and "Alla Tarantella." Hearing such wonderfully evocative music delivered in such wonderfully articulated fashion made it a lot easier to head back into the arctic embrace outside. 

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