A conductor with polished technique and a keen sense of style; a pianist with the same; and a vivid work by Baltimore composer Christopher Rouse -- ingredients for an enjoyable program from the BSO.
Three musicians with polished technique and a keen sense of style; a vivid work by Baltimore composer James Lee III -- ingredients for an enjoyable program from Shriver Hall Concert Series.
I started off my Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff Hall, where the Baltimore Symphony offered a colorful mix of repertoire led by Joshua Weilerstein. Only in his mid-20s (and looking even younger), he already has a long list of orchestral gigs to his credit, as well as a new post -- artistic director of the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra.
That Weilerstein has what it takes was evident at the start of the concert with a taut account of "Prospero's Rooms" by Christopher Rouse, who was on hand to share in the applause afterward.
The 2013 score, written for the New York Philharmonic when Rouse was that ensemble's composer-in-residence, provides a quick-fire evocation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death."
The eventful, brilliantly orchestrated piece sounds, in every way, Poe-like. A breathy moment before the end struck me as a perfect, really spooky stopping point, but the ensuing, pounding close certainly hit home.
The BSO, which delivered Rouse's musical tale with admirable clarity and power, also offered beautifully detailed playing in Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3 (the "Scottish") at the end of the program. The woodwinds, in particular, made prismatic contributions. Note, too, the warmth of the strings in the Adagio, their bristling articulation in the finale.
If his pacing and phrasing lacked those little touches of individuality that were more common in olden days, Weilerstein demonstrated a firm grasp of structure and rhythm throughout the symphony, ensuring a cohesive, absorbing performance. (A technical aside: It was refreshing to see that, unlike so many conductors, young and old, he limits mirror-beating with his left hand, using it more often for sculpting the sound or the phrase.)
In between the Rouse and Mendelssohn came Mozart's often tempestuous Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, with Valentina Lisitsa as soloist.
She is now known as more than a gifted keyboard artist, even more than a YouTube phenom. Thanks to her presence on Twitter, where she opines in provocative fashion about events in her native Ukraine and elsewhere, Lisitsa is also a lightning rod.
Her views, perceived by some as way too pro-Russian, have been known to prompt intense reaction and counter-reaction; the pianist's concert career has been affected to a certain degree.
Seems to me Lisitsa could make her points with far less venom and less questionable taste, without reducing the impact. Too late for that, I guess (she was tweeting with a vengeance soon after leaving Baltimore).
A dozen or so Lisitsa protesters greeted concert-goers before Saturday's performance at Strathmore. There were no such demonstrations at the two Meyerhoff concerts, but, in a twist, a couple of men held pro-Putin and "Stop Obama's War Against Russia" signs across the street from the hall on Sunday. Lisitsa's name was not invoked, as far as I could tell.
So back to the Mozart concerto. Lisitsa gave an assured, comfortably old-school performance, with quite a rich tonal palette. She brought considerable poetic nuance to the Romanza, plenty of boldness to the outer movements, especially in the cadenzas (she chose the fiery ones written by Johann Nepomuk Hummel).
Weilerstein was a very supple colleague, drawing elegant playing from the orchestra; the winds did shining work.
From Meyerhoff, I headed to the JHU campus to catch the first half of Montrose Trio's program, which featured the East Coast premiere of James Lee III's Piano Trio No. 2 ("Temple Visions"), the first of three works commissioned by Shriver Hall Concert Series to mark the organization's 50th anniversary.
Lee, who teaches at Morgan State University, often finds inspiration in the Book of Revelation, as is the case with this score. Even without knowing that notions of archangels, celestial conflicts and the temple of Babylon (real or spiritual) are behind the notes, it is easy to sense a drama unfolding in the course of the work.
The striking forward thrust at the opening "Internal Conflicts" movement and the subsequent reflective haze, with its gentle tolling effect from the keyboard, make a strong impression. Same for a swirling, swooping scherzo ("Galactic Districts") that intriguingly evaporates at the end.
A bittersweet melody introduced by the cello and, later, explored by the violin in "A City Mourned" provides a telling reflection. Lee lets loose with wonderfully aggressive, jumpy material for all three instruments in the fourth movement, "Final Resolutions"; the piano has some particularly wild outbursts. A contrasting touch of other-worldliness along the way gives the music additional depth before a closing dash.
I am not sure about the composer's Hindemith-like move toward a firmly tonal resolution in the last measure of the outer movements; the effect sounds a little forced. Still, the piece exerts a continually potent pull.
It could not have had more expert advocates. Violinist Martin Beaver and cellist Clive Greensmith, who were members of the famed Tokyo String Quartet before it disbanded, and pianist Jon Kimura Parker played with virtuosity and sensitivity. Parker, in particular, had bravura to spare in the score's most treacherous passages.
Lee joined the musicians onstage for an enthusiastic ovation.
At the top of the program, the Montrose players made clear just how much Beethoven was determined to catch attention with his Op. 1, No. 1. The E-flat Piano Trio abounds in clever, even witty ideas, along with passages of remarkable eloquence.
All of those characteristics were easy to savor in this excellent ensemble's vibrant, close-knit, performance.