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

BSO shines with Strauss; cellist makes notable debut

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Last weekend, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra memorably performed sumptuous music of Richard Strauss with guest conductor Jun Markl. It’s doing so again this weekend with music director Marin Alsop.

There’s another connective thread between the two programs — impressive cello playing.

It came last weekend from the BSO’s principal cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski, tackling the hefty solo part in Strauss’ practically cinematic masterwork “Don Quixote.” This time, it’s from guest artist Narek Hakhnazaryan, making his BSO debut in a gem by Tchaikovsky, “Variations on a Rococo Theme.”

The orchestra began Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall sounding less polished than the week before. Still, Mendelssohn’s Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” flowed by pleasantly.

Things really got going after that with the Tchaikovsky piece. Alsop ensured a tight mesh between the ensemble and Hakhnazaryan, drawing sensitive playing to complement the soloist’s refined artistry.

The 29-year-old, Armenian-born Hakhnazaryan is the real deal.

He demonstrated the prowess you’d expect from an International Tchaikovsky Competition gold medalist (that was in 2011). His articulation was clear even in the score’s wildest dashing and darting. And, a brief slip aside, he maintained tonal purity in the many soft, high notes that give so much character to the work.

But the more important distinction was the cellist’s superb sense of style. He caught the sweetness in what is basically Tchaikovsky’s homage to the spirit of Mozart, but also the melancholy strain woven into the music. Those darkly poetic moments were phrased exquisitely.

Responding to a demonstrative reception, Hakhnazaryan offered a mesmerizing encore that has become a specialty of his — “Lamentatio,” a 1998 work by Italian cellist and composer Giovanni Sollima.

It calls on the performer to vocalize wordlessly over the cello’s solemn drone several times; contrasting episodes, passionate and almost percussive, add to the tension. Hakhnazaryan made every note, sung and played, communicate on a deep, personal level.

On the second half of the program, Alsop and the BSO clicked beautifully.

Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” worked its evocative magic. Alsop’s spacious sculpting allowed the musicians to luxuriate in the sonic haze. Emily Skala delivered the flute solo with a subtle radiance; her colleagues in the woodwind section likewise excelled. The strings sounded downright sensual.

The Strauss feast came in the form of the Suite from “Der Rosenkavalier,” the composer’s 1911 opera about love — young and old, foolish and wise.

Strauss didn’t prepare this suite; an uncredited colleague prepared it. All the wonderful highlights from the opera are included, but the arrangement’s seams show. And, most unfortunately, it closes with a waltz from the score and a tacky coda, rather than the opera’s original and perfect orchestral ending.

That said, Alsop conducted masterfully, bringing out the lush lyricism with great flair (though I sure would have loved a slower tempo for the beyond-sublime Trio) and giving the waltzes lots of nuance. The BSO seemed to have a blast. Pristine technique was matched by such electric phrasing that I’d welcome more Strauss every week.

If you go

The BSO performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathderal St. Tickets are $30 to $99. Call 410-783-8000, or go to

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