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Berlin greets orchestra with enthusiasm

BERLIN - The shout of "Wunderbar!" coming from the balcony of the Berlin Philharmonie after the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's encore last night said it all. There was, indeed, something wonderful about the concert.

The musicians can head on to Vienna today for an equally high-profile appearance feeling confident, even proud. They played the heck out of Beethoven in Berlin.

Backstage afterward, music director Yuri Temirkanov looked more pleased than he has at any time during the tour. Asked his reaction to the performance, he offered one of his standard replies to such a question: "Not bad." But the warmth of his smile as he said it indicated much more than that.

Temirkanov and many others in and around the BSO have felt a certain amount of pressure about the Berlin and Vienna engagements. The conductor's decision to play warhorses of the German repertoire in the two German-speaking capitals of Europe invites skepticism.

But the good-sized crowd in the hall clearly was on the same wavelength as the orchestra; the ovations after Beethoven's Eroica Symphony were loud and long; the enthusiasm continued after the lushly played encore of Deep River (which prompted that excited "Wunderbar!").

The audience also applauded remarks by violinist Nikolaj Znaider, who, having wowed the audience with his powerhouse approach to the Brahms Violin Concerto earlier, dedicated his encore to the musicians of the BSO.

"In the short time we had together since I stepped in to substitute for Pamela Frank [the tour's originally scheduled guest violinist]," he said, "we have found each other not only on a musical level, but on a human level."

Even musicians who have been rather downbeat about much of the tour expressed satisfaction over the way things went onstage all night; there haven't been so many smiles since the early days of the tour in England.

(It's surely just coincidental that this hall, like some other venues on the tour, has a bar and cafe backstage, open for business before, during and after the concert. "Tell them we should have something like this at Meyerhoff," one player said.)

Primed, no doubt, by the vociferous reception the night before in Paris, the BSO was able to produce an extraordinary combination of vitality and subtlety, momentum and repose. The orchestra seemed to embrace the nuances of Temirkanov's conducting with a renewed eagerness and appreciation.

What the Berliners heard was an American orchestra operating at the top of its game in one of the world's most prestigious halls, where one of the world's most

prestigious orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic, resides. It's not easy to walk into that place - "This is the shrine," BSO president John Gidwitz said - and have the necessary confidence, especially after another tiring day of travel from Paris by bus and plane.

By the looks of some of the musicians' faces in the morning, they were still busy making the most of their brief Parisian visit well into night. But once they got to Berlin and into the hall, they revealed startling vibrancy, alertness and stamina, with every note receiving an extra boost from the superb acoustics.

Each section of the ensemble shone in the Eroica performance. There were memorable individual efforts as well, from timpanist Dennis Kain (a rock of Gibraltar on this tour) and oboist Joseph Turner to the mighty horn trio of David Bakkegard, Denise Tryon and Mary Bisson.

The concert may have put even more pressure on Temirkanov, who invariably cites the Berlin Philharmonic's late, legendary music director Herbert von Karajan as a major influence on his life. To conduct Beethoven and Brahms - two Karajan specialties - in the very hall Karajan had built to his specifications must have been daunting.

But Karajan himself would have had to admire what Temirkanov was doing on that podium, the intensity he was getting out of the scores, the warmth and spontaneity of his phrasing. The last time the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra played this city, it was still divided into East and West, communist and free, stagnant and vibrant.

On that occasion, the ensemble's concert was on the East side, where American musicians were a relatively rare sight and where they could count on being followed by not-so-undercover policemen everywhere they went while in town. The most modern and reliable form of communication to the States back then was the telex machine. (Anybody remember telex machines?)

Yesterday, the BSO returned to a very different Berlin. The orchestra's hotel is in a spot that used to be part of East Berlin.

"The whole area where we are staying looked a war zone in 1987," said BSO tour manager Susan Anderson Stewart, who still remembers having to cross Checkpoint Charlie into no-man's land when she was doing advance work for that tour.

Today, there are chic, sleek streets lined with up-market stores and restaurants where those Cold War vestiges were. It's a place the BSO should come back to soon, a place where it would likely find an even bigger welcome now that it has showed off its new stuff - and showed it to be wunderbar.

An archive of music critic Tim Smith's reports on the BSO's Europan tour can be found online on SunSpot, The Sun's Web site, at http://www.BaltimoreSun.com/bso .

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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