Tenor Nicholas Phan
Which is all a way of saying that Bruckner's Te Deum can be a bore, leading many conductors to juice up the tempos, exaggerate the tone of declamation from liturgical to hysteric. Such was the approach of guest conductor Peter Oundjian, last heard in the area when he led the National Symphony Orchestra in 2005 (we missed his 2009 appearance in Baltimore), when he led the work, in its first-ever performance by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, at Meyerhoff Hall on Thursday night. A rather fast tempo in the opening was hard to accept as "Feierlich" (solemn), although the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, standing in mixed formation in the chorister seats above the stage, gave the work plenty of "Kraft" (strength). A good thing, since the piece is mostly a choral show, and they sang it with force and beauty, down (up) to the high C in the sopranos on the final chord. The fugue -- with subtle irony, Bruckner composed rather complicated counterpoint for the concluding lines, repeated several times, "O Lord, I have hoped in you, let me never be confounded" -- made up for the rushed feeling in other places, grand and with an eye on eternity.
Part of the problem was that the Te Deum, rushed through in just slightly over twenty minutes, served as a sort of overture to the main course, yet another performance of Beethoven's ninth symphony. The BSO last performed the piece only in 2009, but it will almost always sell out a hall, so it is hard to resist over-programming it -- and equally hard to make a performance distinctive. Oundjian actually did that in some ways, applying the same sort of insistence as he had in the Bruckner, keeping the tempo of the first three movements on the fast side (the scherzo's trio was a delightful romp), so much so that concertmaster Jonathan Carney had some vigorous head-nodding to do to keep the violins on track with Oundjian at the opening of the slow movement. Oundjian, a violinist by training (formerly a member of the Tokyo Quartet), kept the strings in the background at many points, allowing the woodwind parts, often working over themes in motivic bits, to percolate to the top of the texture (one noticeable gaffe, somewhere in the winds, marred the central section of the third movement).
Robert Battey, BSO’s Ninth Symphony not perfect, but it still stirs the blood (Washington Post, May 28)
Tim Smith, Peter Oundjian leads Baltimore Symphony, Choral Arts in Beethoven, Bruckner (Baltimore Sun, May 25)
This concert will be repeated tonight and Saturday night (May 25 and 26), at the Meyerhoff and Strathmore, respectively.