Ignat Solzhenitsyn leads Baltimore Symphony in works by Mozart, Part

When Ignat Solzhenitsyn's career began a couple decades ago, the piano was his primary focus. In short order, the podium attracted his attention, and he has enjoyed significant success as a conductor.

Over the weekend, this son of the Nobel Prize-winning Russian writer and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in stirring performances of Mozart's Requiem and Arvo Part's "Tabula Rasa."

The Estonian-born Part is perhaps best described as a musical mystic. Like the minimalists, he often relies on basic chords or reiterative melodic phrases, but he invariably adds something spiritual to the mix.

He's a sound-poet who creates transfixing experiences where time seems suspended, allowing the ear, intellect and heart to converge on a single path.

"Tabula Rasa," from 1977, is scored for two solo violins, prepared piano and strings. There is tremendous tension in the first movement, as much from the frequent silences as from the final, emotional surge toward a long-held A minor chord.

The much slower second movement, which revolves around a simple theme that gently rocks back and forth, seems to float between two worlds until finally slipping downward in tone coloring through the cello and bass sections and out of ear shot.

It casts a poignant spell -- on Saturday night at Meyerhoff Hall, that spell was strong enough to silence most of the coughing in the audience. 

Solzhenitsyn drew a beautifully shaded account of "Tabula Rasa" from the players.

Violinists Madeline Adkins and Qing Li delivered their solos with considerable nuance; the string ensemble likewise did sensitive work. Lura Johnson was the fine pianist (the instrument was modified to sound like bells, both ominous and comforting).

The conductor approached the Mozart Requiem in an intriguing, double-edged manner.

His fleet tempos reflected today's interest in historically informed performance practice, but his tendency toward emotional phrasing and his interest in huge fortissimos -- made all the easier by having the large scale Baltimore Choral Arts Society on hand -- suggested a more romantic style from years past.

I would have gladly welcomed subtler touches in a few places (notably the Agnus Dei), just as I would have been very happy with slower pacing in others (the Lacrimosa, for example).

But the performance as a whole grabbed hold. In a way, it seemed as if Solzhenitsyn was determined to make Mozart's Requiem sound every inch a precursor to Verdi's.

The chorus was in great form, articulating cleanly even at breakneck speeds and maintaining a firm, full tone in each section of the ensemble. The men charged into the Confutatis with remarkable ferocity that made the women's subsequent, soft plea of "Voca me" all the more telling.

There was an excellent quartet of guest artists -- soprano Susanna Phillips (particularly sweet in the Lux Aeterna); mezzo Marietta Simpson (vocally a little pallid, but still eloquent); tenor Norman Reinhardt and bass Robert Gleadow (both sang with considerable expressive impact throughout).

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