Catching up on recent performances by BSO, Concert Artists, Concert Opera, et al.

The past few weeks have contained more than the usual share of unexpected developments, and that's just in my personal life. There have been a few little surprises in the world at large, too, as you may recall.

I mention all of this by way of explaining why I fell far behind in reviewing musical activity in and around Baltimore -- getting to the events was easier than finding time to write them up amid filing newsier stories. Now, as a public service (and a guilt-assuager for me), I offer a few words for the record about some of the performances I attended recently (or recently-ish).


Baltimore Symphony

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's latest program choice was straight out of the Temirkanov era -- Rimsky Korsakov's "Russian Easter" Overture, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, Prokofiev's Symphony No. 7.


Music director Marin Alsop, who held back on Russian rep in her first few years here, has steadily returned it very much to the fore. She likes it, and so does the public. More importantly, her knack for clarity and dramatic pulse can serve this music awfully well, as evidenced earlier this season. Same for Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall.

The overture emerged with a good deal of spark, and the BSO's response had an impressive snap (I wasn't so sure, though, about the rather loose tone and phrasing of the trombone solo.)

Alsop shaped Prokofiev's disarming symphony with skill and sensitivity. She lavished particular attention on the big, lush theme that appears in the outer movements and could (the first few bars, at least) have been right at home on the soundtrack to any vintage Western.

The conductor caught the mix of jaunty and pastoral in the second movement, the nostalgic, time-ticking-away mood of the remainder.


The playing didn't always sound thoroughly settled, but had plenty of character. The luster and discipline of the strings came through with particular force.

Prokofiev ended the Seventh Symphony quietly, but was convinced to tack on an upbeat, conventional coda for the premiere in 1952. These days, I think most folks recognize the superiority of his original intention, and that's what Alsop followed.

But in a best-of-all-worlds situation, the soft, melancholic note at the close of the symphony was followed by an unexpected encore -- the rambunctious finale of Shostakovich's ballet "The Bolt." Encores are, sadly, avoided in regular concerts, being reserved for touring occasions. The BSO took this program to Newport News on Mother's Day, so I assume this encore was getting a run-through for that out-of-state visit.

That wasn't the only encore of Friday night. Pianist Lukas Vondracek offered a wonderful one after his powerhouse account of the Tchaikovsky concerto. More on that in a second.

As for the concerto, Vondracek's tone had remarkable warmth and depth, his phrasing a spontaneous, finely detailed quality. Like everyone else these days, he tore through the octave passages as fast as possible, but managed to avoid creating a big blur in the process.

The Czech-born pianist kept the emphasis on Tchaikovsky -- the daring structure, the rich emotional content of the concerto -- and not himself. That made all the difference. This refreshing performance also had the benefit of solid partnering from Alsop and vibrant work from the BSO.

About the encore -- a piece new to me, but an instant fave: "Love Song" from the Op. 7 piano pieces by the mostly overlooked Czech composer Josef Suk. Vondracek delivered this disarming work with Old World charm and nuance.

Concert Artists

On Saturday night at the Gordon Center, Concert Artists of Baltimore wrapped up its season with an especially bold example of its creative programming -- choral songs by Faure, Ravel and the way-off-the-beaten-path Henk Badings; Ravel's Piano Concerto in G; William Bolcom's Symphony No. 3.

Written for chamber orchestra (augmented colorfully by electronic piano), the 1979 Bolcom piece is thorny and quirky -- perfect for Baltimore, in other words.

There is some heavy stuff behind the symphony. Bolcom included quotations from the burial service from the Common Book of Prayer to the printed score, and there is a decidedly elegiac quality to the opening and closing minutes, filled with ethereal glissandi from the strings that have a matter-into-spirit suggestiveness.

When, during the final portion of the piece, the orchestra outlines a major chord with a Brucknerian reverence, the effect is deeply stirring. Earlier, in the scherzo, a witty foxtrot suddenly breaks out, and it sounds somehow just as right, just as inevitable -- a memory of something fun, something cherished from the past, perhaps. A very cool, rewarding symphony.

It's not everyday fare for Concert Artists, but, sensitively guided by conductor Edward Polochick, the ensemble dug into it with admirable force and expressive weight (the woodwind soloists did particularly communicative work). This was easily a landmark performance for the ensemble.

In the Ravel concerto, a lighter touch would have been welcome here and there from soloist Nancy Roldan, especially during the sublime Adagio (her subtle rubato, however, was delectable in that movement). Still, the playing had a confident stamp. The soloist received powerful support from Polochick and the orchestra.

It was nice to hear Faure's "Pavane" in its original version (Kristin Winter-Jones' flute gentle solo was another plus). Ravel's "Trois chansons" for mixed chorus from the First World War years and Badings' charming Songs of Brittany from right after the Second also added much to the evening. The singers encountered a few slips of intonation or blend, but communicated vividly.

(My perennial preaching about proper lighting in concert halls when vocal works are performed continues to fall on deaf ears; the audience was left in the dark for the choral portion of the concert.)

Concert Opera

"Lakme," the most successful opera by Leo Delibes, lies on the fringes of the active repertoire. Its charms, chiefly melodic, make it well worth the occasional airing.

As the old Baltimore Opera discovered in 2002, when the company presented its one and only production of the work, "Lakme" requires a lot of vocal talent and theatrical finesse (more than could be summoned on that occasion).

Baltimore Concert Opera only had to worry about the musical side of things for a season-closing presentation of "Lakme" at the Engineers Club.

With James Harp doing his usual fine job at an unfortunately clunky piano to make up for the lack of an orchestra (Delibes' colorful scoring is a major part of this opera's appeal), conductor Anthony Barrese guided the cast through a lively, often quite stylish performance May 1.

The performance had to be start an hour earlier than scheduled because of the curfew (remember the curfew?), but that turned out to the least of the challenges. Illness forced out the singer who had been engaged for the title role -- a demanding one for coloratura soprano -- and a replacement had to be found with little time to spare.

In stepped Kaitlyn Davis, who has been working on her master's at Rutgers (graduation is this week). She sounded tentative at the start, but went on to acquit herself well.

If her light, clear voice tightened at the top and needed more variety of tone color, phrasing was nicely shaped, especially in the more most lyrical passages. And the pyrotechnics of the "Bell Song" were negotiated with sufficient spark.


As Gerard, Ryan MacPherson commanded attention with his plangent timbre and sensitivity to text. The sizable voice and lively phrasing of bass-baritone Peter Tomaszewski, who had the role of Lakme's father, also gave the performance a considerable lift. The other soloists measured up, for the most part, and the chorus did some especially expressive work in the last act.


By the way, the company has announced its 2015-2016 season. In addition to "Fledermaus" and Puccini's forgotten "Edgar," the lineup includes two large-scale challenges, "Aida" and "Falstaff." Maybe they should change the name to Baltimore Chutzpah Opera.

Also noted

Bach in Baltimore, the organization mostly devoted to Bach (as you would imagine), ventures into other territory from time to time. On May 3 at Towson United Methodist, T. Herbert Dimmock led his forces in Brahms' German Requiem. The effort was valiant.

I enjoyed Dimmock's broad, now old-fashioned tempos, but not his tendency to push the dramatic side of the piece at the expense of the softer elements (a sustained pianissimo proved elusive all afternoon).

Individual voices frequently popped out of the choral fabric, and there were bumps in articulation and pitch along the way. Still, the ensemble delivered expressive impact where it counted most. The guest soloists were soprano Jessica Satava and baritone Jeffrey Williams; the latter proved especially effective in tone and phrase. The small orchestra produced quite a big, generally cohesive sound.

The performance honord the 70th anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima and veterans in general. A press release sent out a few days before the event indicated that the Requiem would also be dedicated to the memory of Freddie Gray and on behalf of community healing, but no word of that was mentioned at the concert.

Finally, way back on April 19, Spencer Hammond, one of Baltimore's most cherished church musicians, finally got to enjoy the program in his honor -- two earlier attempts were foiled by wintry weather.

A good turnout at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian heard a vibrant sampling of choral repertoire and a proclamation from the Mayor's Office saluting Hammond's life and work. I had to head for Shriver Hall for another concert before the honoree conducted the final item on the program, but I am sure it was the emotional high point of an already emotionally rewarding afternoon.

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