Sluggishness, program conspire at Meyerhoff


Flat is the word that best describes the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's concert last night in Meyerhoff Hall.

There are at least two reasons for this. One of them was surely that the orchestra had not performed a classical program in more than four weeks -- the BSO has been preoccupied with tiny tots concerts, runouts and pops concerts -- and its collective playing, while not poor, seemed sluggish. For the BSO, one fears, it's spring training all over again.

The second reason was that it was an uninspiring program. BSO music director David Zinman, normally among the most astute programmers in the business, must have neglected to have his morning coffee the day he put together this particular program: George Walker's "Folk Songs for Orchestra," Schubert's Symphony No. 4 and Haydn's "Harmoniemesse."

That meant that there was only one strong work on the program -- the Haydn Mass.

Although the Walker piece was billed as a world premiere, it is apparently a thoroughgoing revision of the composer's earlier "Spirituals" of 1974. Walker takes melodies from four well-known African-American spirituals and subjects them to orchestral transformations. This 10-minute piece seemed as if it would last forever.

Schubert's Symphony No. 4, which followed the Walker, is not one of his best pieces, and the Zinman-BSO performance embalmed it. The orchestra, which had not played the piece in more than 20 years, clearly wasn't familiar with it and Zinman's approach didn't help matters. The sound he got from the orchestra was bland and homogenous, the interchanges among the individual sections of the orchestra were not lively enough, and the conductor seemed overly intent on prettifying and sweetening a piece that already has more than its measure of such qualities.

The Haydn Mass, which concluded the concert, was much better. But even here -- except for the final sections of the work -- the performance seemed below the standard usually set by this conductor and orchestra in late 18th-century repertory. The BSO chorus sang wonderfully, and the good soloists were Sheryl Woods, Nancy Maultsby, Glenn Siebert and Jan Opalach.

The program will be repeated tonight at 8:15 and Saturday morning at 11.

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