Peter Maag gets the BSO to sing in Mendelssohn, Mozart works


Thirty years ago, if someone asked who would be among the world's most celebrated conductors by the '90s, the Swiss conductor Peter Maag would have been on my list. His early recordings -- particularly of Schumann and Mendelssohn -- were among the finest I had ever heard. They were sensitive and affecting (without being affected), and they bespoke remarkable cultivation.

Well, no one was asking my opinion, and while Maag has enjoyed a successful career, the stardom that I thought surely would be his has eluded him.

But he was a remarkable conductor then and -- as his concert last night in Meyerhoff Hall with the Baltimore Symphony indicated -- Maag, now 72, is perhaps even more remarkable now. His performance of Mendlessohn's Symphony No. 4 ("Italian") was among the best I have ever heard.

It was fresh and compelling without ever having to overheat the the music. There was plenty of energy in the fast outer movements, but Maag (unlike many less experienced conductors) never rushed the music. The slow movement was songful -- this conductor seems to be able to elicit unusually beautiful string tone -- and the third movement avoided any hint of heaviness with crisp and deliciously pointed playing.

The performance of Mozart's Symphony No. 39 demonstrated many of the virtues of the Mendelssohn. It had much of the unhurried, old-fashioned warmth that one used to hear in the Mozart of Bruno Walter, Joseph Krips and Karl Boehm and that does not seem to be much in fashion any more.

It also featured some beautiful playing by the orchestra, particularly from the winds and most especially from flutist Mark Sparks and clarinetist Steven Barta.

The evening's soloist in Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme was BSO principal cellist Mihaly Virizlay.

It's easy to see why other cellists speak with awe of the way Virizlay plays this piece. The cellist's arsenal of bow strokes seemed limitless, his left hand moved up and down the fingerboard with something like the speed of light and his subtly nuanced tone was perfectly suited to this operatic and elegant score.

The program will be repeated tonight at 8:15 and tomorrow afternoon at 3.

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