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Christoph Konig leads Baltimore Symphony in dynamic program of Beethoven, Strauss

MusicCultureMusic IndustryBaltimore Symphony Orchestra

In the fresh-face department, German conductor Christoph Konig has a lot going for him in his Baltimore Symphony Orchestra debut this week.

He's tall, young and handsome, attributes that count in classical music circles more than ever these days. And, on Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall, he seemed perfectly at ease with the musicians and the audience.

The program originally was to have featured Mahler's First Symphony, which would have given the conductor a more revealing platform, perhaps. But the budget-conscious switch to Beethoven's Seventh meant that Konig, who leads ensembles in Portugal and Luxembourg, still got to present a strong calling card.

He offered no surprises in the Beethoven piece (except for taking an unusually long pause between the first and second movements). Tempos reflected prevailing tastes, which meant no dawdling over the Allegretto and hardly room for a breath in the finale.

But Konig's sweeping approach yielded rewards, as did his ear for inner details, especially the almost proto-minimalist repetitive motives that pop up in the symphony.

And although the BSO didn't necessarily give the conductor the soft dynamics he signaled for -- lots of crouching on the podium -- enough dynamic variety nonetheless emerged to give the performance an extra kick. The orchestra's tight articulation and bright sound proved impressive throughout.  

A little more subtlety of phrasing would have been welcome in the program-opener, Debussy's Petite Suite, but Konig had the music unfolding pleasantly and drew some stylish playing from the ensemble.

The highlight of the evening in many ways was a performance of the Oboe Concerto by Richard Strauss, one of the composer's autumnal gifts.

Dating from 1946, when the horror of the war was still very much in mind and evidence, the concerto understandably harks back to a sweeter time. Lovely, ghostly bits of "Der Rosenkavalier" and other past Strauss masterworks seem to flutter around the edges of the score. Even when the mood is at its cheeriest and jauntiest, something deeper can be felt.

The BSO's exceptional principal oboist Katherine Needleman dedicated her performance to the memory of her counterpart at the San Francisco Symphony, William Bennett. He died Feb. 28 at age 56, a few days after collapsing onstage when he suffered a brain hemorrhage while playing this very concerto with his orchestra.

The piece poses great challenges right from the start; the opening oboe solo lasts more than 50 measures. Throughout, the player is expected to maintain endless breath control and beauty of tone, expectations handsomely met by Needleman Thursday night.

Her gleaming, poetic playing was sensitively matched by her colleagues, while Konig maintained a smooth overall flow.

The concert will be repeated Friday night at Meyerhoff, Saturday at Strathmore.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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