A few words on concerts by Bronfman, Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, Loadbang

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Rewarding artists, rewarding sounds during the first musical events of the new season.

Baltimore's music season is still in its early days, but has delivered a good deal of interest and pleasure. I've already mentioned notable work by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Now, a few words on other performances that left their mark.

Shriver Hall Concert Series has good reason to celebrate these days -- 50 years of  presenting the city with a sterling assortment of soloists and ensembles. The roster from those first five decades reads like a who's-who of classical stars. 

Sunday night's season-opener found one of today's great keyboard artists, Yefim Bronfman, in solid form as he juxtaposed works by two composers who might not necessarily be thought of in the same breath -- Schumann and Prokofiev. An unusual pairing (at least to me); an intriguing one, too.

Heard in this context, the more rugged, propulsive side of Schumann in "Faschingsschwank aus Wien" seemed to point the way to Prokofiev's trademark rhythmic vitality, so evident in the early sonatas Bronfman chose. The lyrical grace of Schumann's "Arabesque" also somehow found an echo in the softer, gentler moments of those Prokofiev pieces.

"Faschingsschwank" inspired playing of rich character and spontaneity from Bronfman. He began the "Arabesque" in surprisingly metronomic, rather cold fashion, but the performance gained in warmth as it continued; the coda was sculpted with particular eloquence.

The pianist could have lingered longer over the more poetic elements in the Prokofiev sonatas, but he made each a mini-drama bristling with restless energy; No. 2 was delivered in particularly colorful, compelling fashion.

Baltimore Chamber Orchestra

Earlier on Sunday, the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra got its season off to a pleasant start at Kraushaar Auditorium. The good turnout suggested that the ensemble, now in its 33rd year, is continuing to hold its own.

Other than unevenness in the violins, the orchestra sounded firm. It also sounded, on this occasion, in need of more dynamic guidance from the podium.

Music director Markand Thakar approached Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture in a genteel, deliberately paced fashion that pretty much drained it of drama. Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony also needed a more bracing touch in places, though the work's rich lyricism emerged quite effectively.

The highlight of the afternoon was Mozart's Oboe Concerto, featuring Katherine Needleman, the Baltimore Symphony's principal oboist.

Needleman, who made typically stellar contributions to the BSO's performance of Strauss' "Alpine Symphony" last week, excelled here, too. Her phrasing revealed consistent clarity and nuance. Her cadenzas were delivered with a disarming air of spontaneity, myriad tone colors and apparently limitless breath control. Thakar provided supple partnering and drew sensitive work from the orchestra.


In the better-late-than-never category, let me mention at long last the welcome return to Baltimore of Loadbang early in the month.

David Smooke's "A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was" -- written for, and dedicated to, this extra-cool new music group (baritone, bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone) -- was premiered Sept. 8 at the Centre Street Performance Space.

Conditions were not ideal. The acoustics greatly favored the instrumentalists over the vocalist. Ambient noise also got in the way. A lot of the text -- an alphabetized story by Michael Kimball -- got swallowed up.

Still, this was a fascinating experience in sound and content. There was a visual component as well, from a mostly absorbing film by Margaret Rorison that accompanied the performance. 

Smooke detects in the jumbled words a narrator who "gradually develops a sense of self, growing up with a doting mother and a nearly absent father." (It's probably just my natural tendency to go toward the dark side, but, during the performance, I started getting images of physical abuse from some of the words, a suggestion that a painful past was being in some way exorcised.)

The composer has written an exceedingly imaginative, complex piece, matching the unconventional text note for syllable. There is hardly any trace of traditional word-setting, but Smooke does some wonderful underlining -- "broken" generates a visceral treatment, for example. And there's a stunning release when "together" is uttered, triggering an almost Janacek-like exultation from the instruments.

The wordless coda strikes me as a little too protracted, but mesmerizing all the same, especially a three-note motive that returns, wave-like, lapping subtly at the edges of the score.

Loadbang embraced the challenge with as much musicality as technical aplomb. Baritone Jeffrey Gavett sounded stretched at times, but maintained an uncanny naturalness of expression throughout, no matter how numerous the repetitions of particular words.

A singular event all the way around.

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