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MusicFest has lost much of its sizzle


Some places are hotbeds of orchestral activity during the sticky months. A couple of obvious examples: Wolf Trap in Virginia, where the National Symphony makes its summer home; and Tanglewood in Massachusetts, where the Boston Symphony maintains an exceptionally busy schedule for July and August.

Baltimore is somewhat less fortunate when it comes to warm-season options. The Baltimore Symphony's outdoor venue, Oregon Ridge, is a bit primitive and easily threatened by weather. (At Wolf Trap and Tanglewood, the show can go on when it rains, since the stage and much of the seating area is under cover.)

At its regular home, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the BSO has long held a Summer MusicFest, but the event has had trouble developing into a consistent attraction with a clear-cut character. I've seen three different approaches to programming just in the six years I've been here.

My favorite BSO MusicFests were those with Mario Venzago as artistic director back in 2000 and a few seasons thereafter. His enthusiasm and distinctive musical gifts, not to mention his disarming remarks in a wonderfully thick accent, invariably had the hall in a good mood.

Venzago was an imaginative programmer, finding room for ballet music from Mozart's Idomeneo and some of that composer's underexposed choral pieces. He gave us some welcome Wagner, too, and Debussy's infrequently encountered Premiere rapsodie for clarinet and orchestra.

Concerts were preceded by chamber music played by BSO members and guest artists, often with a thematic link to the orchestral programs.

For some reason, the BSO brushed Venzago off, despite his unmistakable popularity, and the 2004 MusicFest took a new turn, without anyone at the artistic helm. Programs were built around composers who came from a particular wine-producing area, with appropriate tastings in the lobby beforehand.

The nice tradition of chamber preludes continued that year, but died the next summer, leaving only an assortment of orchestral programs (not necessarily with any vintner connections) and the imbibing in 2005. Whoopee.

Now comes the 2006 MusicFest. Gone is the wine gimmick, replaced by "Classical Hit Parade." And I do mean hit. This week's opener includes one of the most ubiquitous of all works, Pachelbel's Canon in D, and the festival closes at month's end with the inevitable Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, with Mozart and Tchaikovsky war horses in between.

There still isn't an artistic director for the summer season. The chamber music miniconcerts are still out of the picture.

The festival looks like a committee-led venture. There is no overall character, just four programs at wallet-friendly prices. The one constant over the years has been the pre- and post-concert activities in the lobby and outdoors, involving live pop music, dancing and refreshments.

Perhaps when Marin Alsop is fully in place as the BSO's new music director next year, MusicFest will receive more imaginative guidance. There's no reason why the orchestra can't offer summertime fun with consistent substance and a strong identity.

That said, BSO associate conductor Andrew Constantine deserves credit for giving the opening baroque bash some unexpected enticements. To complement the Pachelbel evergreen, he has slipped in some unusual orchestral transcriptions -- Edward Elgar's version of Bach's Fantasia and Fugue in C minor and Edmund Rubbra's take on Brahms' Handel Variations.

More familiar transcriptions of Bach favorites by Leopold Stokowski will also be played. Rounding out the program: Telemann's Concerto for Two Violas, with the BSO's Peter Minkler and Christian Colberg, and the overture to Handel's Royal Fireworks Music.

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $25, $45 for box seats. Call 410-783-8000 or visit

The concert will also be presented at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda.

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