If the crowds were not always sizable, and if the weather didn't always cooperate with the outdoor pre- and post-concert activities, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Summer MusicFest 2000 still had a decidedly successful run. Mario Venzago, the festival's new artistic director, proved to be a winning force; the orchestra responded dynamically to him; lots of engaging repertoire and some exceptional guest artists ensured a high level of musical interest. Friday evening's final concert at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall was a good example of these attributes.
Venzago started things off with the only complete symphony programmed during the five-concert fest, Mozart's "Prague" Symphony. The conductor took particular delight in emphasizing the traces of "The Marriage of Figaro" that appear in the score, from bubbly melodic ideas in the first and third movements to the almost bittersweet taste of the second. Tempos were propulsive, but not rushed; each phrase was attentively, elegantly molded. Other than a few wiry moments among the violins, the ensemble demonstrated admirable smoothness of articulation.
The music of Schumann holds a special appeal for Venzago, who will open the BSO's 2000-2001 subscription season with Schumann's "Spring" Symphony in September. For this event, he turned to the Cello Concerto and had the benefit of collaborating with another intense Schumann fan, British cellist Steven Isserlis.
Hearing this subtle concerto performed with such unaffected eloquence is a rare pleasure. Isserlis and Venzago turned the intricately woven dialogue between cello and orchestra into one long, romantic poem. Isserlis was joined by BSO principal cellist Mihaly Virizlay for an unusually seamless account of the slow movement's wistful duet.
As a prelude to the concert, Isserlis, violinist Leonidas Kavakos, pianist Eduardus Halim and two BSO members, violinist Kenneth Goldstein and violist Noah Chaves, teamed up for Schumann's Piano Quintet. The playing was committed, but not quite integrated into a tight unit; a mushy sound, which seems unavoidable for chamber music in that hall, took a toll as well.
One of the impressive things about Venzago's approach to the festival is his refusal to take any composition for granted. So when he reached Rossini's "Semiramide" Overture, he did not go on auto-pilot, letting the familiar fare make its alternately explosive and lyrical points in routine fashion. He re-examined the dramatic nature of each crescendo to get the maximum thrust, toyed with rhythms just enough to create some suspense along the way. The result was a taut, involving account that inspired particularly admirable efforts from the horns and other wind soloists.
All but one of the festival programs offered a taste of Spanish dance music, mostly written by Frenchmen; Friday's dose came from Ravel's "Rapsodie espagnole." Venzago drew attention to the transparency of orchestration throughout, relishing the mix of delicate and bright colors, the contrast between sensual languor and kinetic energy. The BSO made another strong showing, with wind soloists again rising to the fore.
The dashing finale of the "Rapsodie" made an apt parting shot for the energetic Venzago, who enjoyed a hearty ovation not just from the audience, but from the orchestra. Summer MusicFest 2001 should be very interesting.