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Fleisher's Peabody concert one to treasure

The Baltimore Sun

A week after receiving one of this year's Kennedy Center Honors, Leon Fleisher performed two-hand piano music with inspiring confidence and expressive power at the Peabody Institute.

Denied the use of his right hand for decades due to a neurological movement disorder, the pianist has made a gradual return to ambidexterity in recent years, thanks to Botox injections. As Fleisher is the first to point out, his condition has hardly been healed, just modified. So every occasion to hear him in double-barrel music-making is to be treasured.

He opened Sunday night's "Leon Fleisher and Friends" program by himself, delivering Bach's compact and descriptive Capriccio in B-flat, subtitled "On the Departure of a Beloved Brother." The playing was clear, unfussy, beautifully molded.

Later, Fleisher tackled Brahms' A major Piano Quartet, Op. 26, joined by fellow Peabody faculty members Violaine Melancon (violin), Victoria Chiang (viola) and Michael Kannen (cello). This score is almost symphonic in scale and gesture. For that matter, the keyboard part is almost concerto-like in weight.

Fleisher brought to the assignment plenty of muscle (some dropped notes hardly mattered) and lyrical sweep, and his phrasing was matched in poetic intensity by that of the string players.

The program also offered some Fleisher-less Bach - Cantata No. 82, Ich habe genug, a moving reflection on the comfort of death for the faithful. William Sharp was the eloquent, soft-grained baritone soloist. Katherine Needleman spun out the oboe lines with a melting tone.

Those two Peabody faculty artists and a third, the wonderful organist Donald Sutherland, were joined onstage by a smooth student string ensemble in this tender performance.

Bronfman at Shriver

Before heading to "Leon Fleisher and Friends," I caught the first half of Yefim Bronfman's sold-out recital for the Shriver Hall Concert Series. The Russian-born pianist was in terrific form, with dead-on articulation, character-rich phrasing and a tone that encompassed everything from whispers to thunderclaps.

Beethoven's Sonata No. 13 emerged with lots of dynamic contrasts to play up the score's light and shadow. Schumann's Fantasy in C major, a work of Byronic imagery and emotion, inspired equal doses of technical strength and interpretive nuance.

The only downside to the concert was having to wait endlessly in line at the absurd Johns Hopkins University parking garage used by Shriver Hall patrons. Something has to be done about the unreliable, clumsy and confusing automated system for entry and exit. Surely that campus has enough brainpower to devise an improvement.

BSO's 'Messiah'

On Friday night, I renewed acquaintance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's annual performance of Handel's Messiah. I only stayed for the Christmas-related Part 1, but that offered plenty of opportunity to savor conductor Edward Polochick's remarkable take on the score.

His tempos, from time-stopping to 600 mph, and depth of expression once again proved arresting. Most of the time, the Concert Artists of Baltimore Symphonic Chorale stayed right with him, producing a nicely balanced sound in the process. The BSO players were in dynamic form.

Although Messiah was originally intended as an alternative to opera during the theater-darkened Lenten season, Polochick likes to give the soloists full baroque-era operatic license. Soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme took off on particularly florid rides, to mostly exciting and persuasive effect. Bass-baritone Timothy Jones offered a wonderfully warm sound and supple phrasing.

Mezzo Kelley O'Connor and tenor John Bellemer completed the vocal quartet in this distinctive version of the evergreen oratorio.

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