BSO thrives in U.K. halls

Sun Music Critic

BIRMINGHAM, England - From a long train journey through frosty Scottish countryside Friday morning to an unexpectedly wild ride through a Brahms concerto last night, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has had a very full weekend.

Depending on what player you talk to, it has also been a difficult, smooth, tiring, energizing, disappointing or rewarding weekend.

"Ask 100 musicians a question, and you'll get 100 different answers," trumpeter Langston J. Fitzgerald III says, and that has been plain backstage after every performance in the English leg of the BSO's European tour so far. (The final U.K. stop is tonight in London.)

A far more consistent analysis has been possible out in the audience in three different venues.

Artistically speaking, the tour really began Friday night in Bridgewater Hall, a gleaming, angular, 5-year-old venue that provides an extra dash of architectural color to the vibrant downtown area of Manchester.

What the ensemble delivered there was one of those unique highs that the combination of great music and great music-making can deliver - the non-narcotic equivalent of Ecstasy. It was an emphatic demonstration of just how much Yuri Temirkanov and the BSO have achieved together.

Baltimore audiences have yet to hear anything quite like this, not because the orchestra hasn't given stirring performances back home, but simply because Bridgewater Hall provided an acoustical experience that outclasses even the warm, lively sound at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. There wasn't a detail of instrumental coloring that couldn't be savored. No wonder Bridgewater is one of Temirkanov's favorite performance spaces.

The interior makes a striking contemporary statement. Balconies lined with brass railings jut out at assorted angles, as if huge, oddly proportioned ships were aiming for the stage and its backdrop of soaring organ pipes.

As was the case in Glasgow, the sizable audience could not have been more attentive; no crinkled candy wrappers or shattering mobile phones, hardly a cough or other distraction when notes were being played. (Yet another experience virtually unknown in Baltimore.)

Temirkanov encouraged an extra intensity of articulation throughout Samuel Barber's Essay for Orchestra No. 1 and let the final, questioning note dissipate more slowly, hauntingly than at a pre-tour concert. The strings sounded richer, deeper than ever; the expansion of the bass section for the trip (from eight to nine) is paying off handsomely.

In Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, Temirkanov had the orchestra giving soloist Andre Watts a run for his money producing passionate, vivid phrasing. When the strings plunged into their first big theme in the opening movement, it was as if a grand old Russian orchestra were in the hall; the sound was immense, and immensely soulful.

This is not to slight Watts, however. He was as solid technically as he was compelling interpretively, creating an exceptional array of dynamic shadings. In the score's most animated moments, the pianist set off sparks (and, at the end of the final movement's brief cadenza, an audible yelp of victory).

Temirkanov shaped two monuments of the French repertoire, Debussy's La Mer and Ravel's La Valse, with a cool, knowing hand. A couple of spots could have been more refined, but the ensemble's overall response was incisive, even electrifying at times.

The magic continued with the single encore, the "Nimrod" movement from Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations, one of the noblest passages in all of English music. Never mind the slightly shaky start (the players seemed uncertain of Temirkanov's initial beat); the rest was not just solid, but downright spiritual in its effect.

Saturday night, a slightly reduced BSO was bused along a foggy highway to Leeds, an hour's drive. The program was nearly the same; the venue, the Town Hall, could not have been more different. It's a deliciously florid monument to Victoriana.

The gilded interior contains huge ornate columns, heavy lamps, gargantuan organ pipes crowned with statues, and an elaborately carved ceiling ringed with inspirational mottos - "Honesty Is the Best Policy," "Industry Overcomes All Things," "In Union is Strength" (no doubt doubly appreciated by an orchestra), "God in the Highest," etc. Queen Victoria must have been thrilled to dedicate the place in 1853.

The musicians were crammed onto a small stage (the percussion section had to be put several feet above and behind the rest). But with a capacity audience practically in the orchestra's lap, there was an appealing intimacy about the experience. And although the playing was not on the same level as in Manchester (the "Nimrod" encore began even more tentatively), the BSO acquitted itself more than respectably.

Then back on the bus to Manchester, where it was the Night of the Living Drunk. Downtown crawled with hundreds of feeling-no-pain young people, staggering from pub to club. The ladies had apparently gone in for some competitive dressing - "Anything you can wear, I can wear less of" (despite the November chill). Several BSO musicians took a spot in front of their hotel and soaked in the fascinating spectacle, which continued well into the wee hours.

After a two-hour bus ride in the rain the next morning, the BSO reached Birmingham, home to another of Britain's most celebrated recently built concert halls. Shining like a mega-diner inside (lots of chrome columns with red and silver stripes), the oval Birmingham Symphony Hall offers lush acoustics and a visually striking stage area.

The BSO made a velvety sound there and offered mostly sterling work in the same all-Brahms program that opened the tour in Glasgow. On balance, it was a stronger, tighter performance.

But the big news last night was the account of the Brahms Violin Concerto with dynamic young soloist Nikolaj Znaider, in his BSO debut. He played with a potent, muscular kind of lyricism in the first two movements and had just started pushing the expressive level even higher in the opening minutes of the finale when a string broke.

"I wanted to stop and start over," he said afterward, "because it happened so soon, but the Maestro wouldn't stop."

Temirkanov just kept on conducting and pointed with his left arm to concertmaster Jonathan Carney, indicating that Znaider should borrow Carney's violin. This he did, without missing a note.

Meanwhile, Carney, with initial help from assistant concertmaster Adrian Semo, set about re-stringing and re-tuning Znaider's fiddle, eventually handing it back to the soloist and reclaiming his own violin - all while the concerto continued churning along.

That's not the end of the story.

"Nikolaj uses a shoulder rest, and I don't," Carney said, "so I'm not used to working with them. I ended up putting his on backward. When he got the violin, it must have felt like trying to walk with a shoe on the wrong foot, but he still never missed an entrance."

Critical reaction to the BSO's tour so far has been enthusiastic. David Harrison, writing about Friday's concert in the Manchester Evening News, singled out the brass, "the richness of the lower strings," "a powerful collaboration of intense energy" in the Rachmaninoff concerto, "shimmering shades and contrasts" in the Debussy piece. Harrison also suggested that the BSO return to Manchester often.

Michael Tumelty, reviewing the Thanksgiving Day program for Glasgow's The Herald, went on quite a gushing spree: "superlative playing," "sheer class," "orchestral articulation to die for," "one of the finest concerts ever staged in the Royal Concert Hall."

It's shaping up to be a very successful tour.

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