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Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond

BSO trots out war horses by Tchaikovsky, Bartok

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Another week, another impressive effort by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

If anyone has somehow not noticed how tight the ensemble’s technique has become, Friday night’s performance of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, conducted by music director Marin Alsop, would surely have woken up the ears.

You can’t hop on such a war horse effectively unless everyone is fully charged, totally in sync. That’s how the BSO sounded at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where the program will be repeated Sunday.

But there also has to be an intense connection to the music, an appreciation for its mix of moodiness and giddiness. That connection sealed the deal Friday.

With Alsop providing calm command, attentive to dynamic shading and rhythmic pulse, the orchestra revealed an expressive vitality that gave even the score’s slowest passages an extra tingle.

One especially notable thing Alsop has done over the years is hone the BSO’s pianissimo playing. That paid off in the many soft, darkly atmospheric moments of the Concerto for Orchestra.

There was much more, of course, that made the performance click so strongly — the woodwinds bubbling up spookily in the Elegia movement; the strings producing a meaty burnished sound in that same movement and brilliantly negotiating the wild dashes in the finale; the brass sustaining Gilbraltar-solid tone throughout. Individual efforts were admirable across the board, too.

I think Bartok did something awfully cruel in the fourth movement, the way he mocked a crucial theme from Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 (Bartok resented the popularity of that work). But this particular passage in the Concerto for Orchestra provided one of the high points Friday. The BSO woodwinds and brass had such a field day delivering this musical raspberry that even Shostakovich might have had to laugh.

The program opened with more Bartok, an arrangement for strings of his Romanian Folk Dances. Alsop shaped these piquant gems sensitively, drawing colorful shades from the players. Concertmaster Jonathan Carney’s solos were finely detailed.

After intermission, it was war horse time again — Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Can’t we ever get the strangely neglected No. 2 instead? Sigh.

The BSO’s soloist, the gifted Gabriela Montero, certainly has the keyboard chops for the perennially popular concerto. She articulated clearly and had no trouble producing volume, even when the orchestra was going full-force (this was some of the loudest piano playing I’ve heard in the hall in quite a while).

I would have welcome more subtlety of tone, more contour in the phrasing; such touches can make Tchaikosvky’s habit of repeating thematic ideas less noticeable. Still, the pianist’s straight-ahead approach held its rewards and drew a hearty response from the audience.

Alsop was an attentive partner in the concerto. The orchestra again demonstrated cohesion and character.

If you go

The BSO performs music of Bartok and Tchaikovsky at 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $30 to $99. Cal 410-783-8000, or go to

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