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Gelber, Tortelier, and Orchestral Splendor

Last Saturday, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's trumpeters were tested – one by one, then together – before the concert by, well, trumpeting cacophonous fanfares into Strathmore Hall from the balcony behind the stage. A sophisticated sound-check, perhaps, but the exact purpose eluded me. The actual first piece of music was the ever-magnificent Hebrides Overture, op. 26, by Mendelssohn that Strathmore's rich, deep acoustic only helped to make even finer. With Yan Pascal Tortelier, not a known quantity in the U.S. but an excellent conductor well respected in Europe, especially the U.K., the BSO played mellifluously towards the beautiful result. Maestro Tortelier's unique conducting style - sans baton – is something to behold. The very precise and the merely evocative take turns, and it looks a little like a child play-conducting in front of the mirror. (A child with in-depth knowledge of the score, that is.)

Mozart's late piano concertos are all delights, but no. 23 in A major, K. 488, is especially fine – in particular, its glorious slow movement. Bruno Leonard Gelber, who overcame polio only to join the ranks of Argentina's many fine pianists, was as fleet as anyone, once at the Strathmore's Steinway. His leisurely paced Mozart allowed for all the notes to be heard and was well spatialized. Rather than focusing on empty, dazzlingly fast keyboard pyrotechnics, Gelber played out the charm and joyous, sunny beauty of the work and did so to great effect. The tears that are allegedly in this concerto were far away on Saturday, but these ears always find K. 488 a wholly joyful, sorrow-free affair. Tortelier and the BSO were congenial partners in this amiably performed concerto and audibly more comfortable in this bigger Mozart work than they had been during the Mozart violin concerto a few weeks back.

It was a day of luscious fare, with calorie-rich, high-quality stuff. Topping off the Mendelssohn-Mozart coupling was Elgar with his Enigma Variations. Whether they are played brisk and playfully or ponderously melancholic (like Bernstein in his perversely appealing Vienna recording where Nimrod becomes a funeral march), this work is forgiving and indestructible. In full force now, the BSO and Tortelier opted to stay away from either extreme and delivered a well-honed, compelling reading. The only quibble – and not a terribly important one – would be that the hissing flutes sometimes produced as much air as tone. I doubt anyone in the awed audience cared as they burst into standing ovations as one.

The concert hadn't been marketed as such, but with that program, it would have been near ideal to bring children, assorted youngsters, and otherwise classical-music uninitiated to the symphony. All works were extremely likeable and immediately appealing, and the Elgar in particular makes for a good story and offers some very decibel-impressive moments. One hopes that plenty of virgin ears were in the audience, ready to explore more of the sort. For those who had time to stay afterwards, the BSO at Strathmore invited its audience for desserts and coffee.

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