Baltimore Symphony gala showcases Lang Lang and local talent

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's annual gala Saturday night was about as feel-good an occasion as you could hope for during rough financial times for the institution. One of the biggest ovations of the night came before any music was played, when board chairman Michael Bronfein mentioned Music Matters, the musicians' voluntary gesture aimed at helping the bottom line -- they gave back $1 million in pay and benefits last spring, and another $1 million this summer. The tuxedo-speckled audience stood and cheered the players heartily.

There was positive news about the challenge part of Music Matters -- the musicians' plea to the community to match their gift with new or increased contributions. A recent $250,000 donation just brought to $1 million the total raised so far by this campaign.

In other financial news, Bronfein announced that $800,000 was raised by the gala in support of the orchestra's educational efforts. A recent addition to that activity, OrchKids, a kind of American version of Venezuela's famed El sistema program, was launched last year with $100,000 in seed money from BSO music director Marin Alsop. An encouraging report on OrchKids was provided in an effective video that showed West Baltimore school kids embracing the program, which clearly has enormous potential.


Speaking of potential, a promising senior from the Baltimore School for the Arts,

soprano Arielle Armstrong, got a spot on the gala concert. She reflected strongly on her school's value with a poised, vibrant delivery of "Summertime" from Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," sensitively backed by the orchestra.

Alsop, who has championed the work of African-American composer James P. Johnson in previous galas, led a snappy account of his symphonic poem "Drums," preceded by a performance by the vividly costumed African Heritage Dancers and Drummers from D.C. Their appearance on this particular program bill didn't quite make a smooth fit. For that matter, neither did a video piece at the start of the evening, which featured Alsop discussing her mentor Leonard Bernstein and 1980s shots of her being coached by him in a conducting session. That video would have made more sense at last season's gala, which kicked off a season that had a recurring Bernstein theme. Oh well, mine is not to reason why.

Alsop led the ensemble in straight-ahead performances of Bernstein's "Candide" Overture and an abbreviated version of Gershwin's "An American in Paris" before reaching the big-ticket item on the program, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, featuring the enormously popular Lang Lang.

Anyone who came into Meyerhoff Symphony Hall already an admirer of the pianist no doubt left in the same condition. Those arriving with a skeptical or dismissive attitude would have found reinforcement, too. It was certainly an exciting event, in much the same way that watching Michael Phelps set a new world record can be. Come to think of it, this was very much an athletic feat, for Lang Lang seemed determined to play the concerto's fast bits faster than any other human. The flurries of octaves, in particular, were astonishing in terms of velocity. I only wish they had made more musical sense. If Tchaikovsky had envisioned a wild, thunderous blur, I rather suspect he wouldn't have bothered writing out all those little notes.

That said, this open-hearted concerto is pretty much indestructible, and Lang Lang is hardly the first soloist primarily intent on making it a bravura display vehicle, or exaggerating tempos (slow and fast alike). And there were times, to be sure, when he phrased beautifully, warmly, elegantly. Not often enough, alas, to persuade me that deeply inspired music-making was taking place at the keyboard. Fabulous facility and daring, yes. That, especially on a gala occasion, was probably enough.