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Fazil Say Opens the Baltimore Symphony's Season

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Fazil Say
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra opened its 2005/06 season with an ‘American Concert’ that consisted of Gershwin’s American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue, followed by Dvořák’s 9th Symphony, which although wholly Brahmsian and Bohemian in character, has been adopted by Americans as ‘their symphony’ – a status either caused or reinforced by the nickname “From the New World.” The soloist for the Rhapsody was the ever-spunky Turkish pianist Fazil Say. (His sadly deleted recording of the Rite of the Spring for piano, four hands, is one of the most exciting piano recordings I know – so I was very much looking forward to seeing him live.)

There were moments of Slavic melancholy in the American in Paris, which sounded like a an American émigré from the Dontesk visiting Paris and getting homesick. But that mood had no chance of lasting when the more ebullient run-up to the finale came crashing in, swaying at the hips. Highly animated and with a stubborn jaw, Fazil Say sported an “I couldda been a contender” look along with the boyish and feisty in the following work. Wide-eyed, he turned to the orchestra whenever his concentration wasn’t demanded at the keyboard, where he pounced around like a kitten on catnip. Several times I thought he was going to strike up a conversation with the concertmaster. Gershwin’s Rhapsody is a work that not only takes irreverence in stride, it thrives on it. The choice of this never-grown-up, silver-brown-haired punk of a European pianist seemed perfect for a work that can easily slip towards cliché. To be sure, Say makes Lang Lang look tame on the piano bench… but where the overly dramatic gesticulating is a constant source of annoyance for me with the latter, the former’s finds me bemused. Presumably because Say’s antics are actually linked to the way he performs. Kick that piano, for all I care.

The reception of his performance was such that he played an encore – one of his own compositions in which – like in his Rite – he manipulates the piano by plucking and holding down its strings to great effect. The work had clearly Middle Eastern (it is fair to assume: Anatolian) roots but a recognizably western dress. (Speak to any Turkish politician, and he will tell you that that’s also indicative of the country as a whole these days.) The work had the audience spellbound.

The Dvořák 9th that followed was a captivating performance that did well to remind the more cynical listener that maybe the symphony is not as popular as it is just because of its American association. What seemed a rather well-behaved performance at first (everything does, though, after seeing Say play) turned its charms on and was aided by particularly fine winds. The brass section of the BSO will be Temirkanov’s legacy (if nothing else). They had power, warmth, and quality of playing all on their side, and the Dvořák was exactly the kind of piece for which they were honed to excel. Anyone who will see the concert either today at 8PM at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, on Sunday at 3PM (same place), or on Saturday at Strathmore (8PM) is in for a treat.

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