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The Name of the Game Is "Redemption"

This review comes from Ionarts guest contributor Lindsay Heller.

Thursday night brought the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra back to Strathmore for what promised to be a program filled with varied emotions, styles, and ideas. I have to say that if I were the artistic director, placing Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen alongside Joaquín Rodrigo's Fantasia para un Gentillhombre and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony would not only be a gutsy move, but would rather have me hoping that my audience could tolerate such a mismatched program.

Guest conductor Juanjo Mena proved to be an interesting sight to behold, especially in the way he waved his baton at the orchestra to signal them to rise: personally, I think he stole that wispy move from Harry Potter. Mena’s conducting on a piece as serious, dramatic, and reflective as Strauss’s Metamorphosen seemed somewhat inappropriate in his large patterns (which did not really look like patterns, so kudos to the ensemble for staying together) and generally overly ethereal mannerisms. This deeply personal piece scored for twenty-three strings was composed towards the end of World War II and in a way allowed someone who prided himself on seeming oblivious to what went on around him a way to express extreme sadness and yearning.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Mena leads gripping BSO program (Baltimore Sun, October 1)

Joe Banno, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Washington Post, October 1)
Strauss took the title of the piece from celebrated German writer Goethe, whom he spent much of the war years reading as a means of finding solace in all the destruction and despair. This piece takes a few themes — the best-known of which is probably the “Mourning for Munich” theme — and spins them out from one another in a stream of constant development. It is unabashed in its honesty and harkens back to many of Strauss’s earlier works in its treatment of musical ideas and blunt, but effective emotional renderings through the use of the strings. Aside from concertmaster Jonathan Carney, the entire ensemble failed to project the intensity that was not only written on the page, but also that displayed on the podium as the music progressed. Let’s put it this way, if the BSO had been performing Death and Transfiguration, I would have thought death was reached before the music even began.

As if Strauss could not make one question life and all its negativity, the orchestra then completely switched gears to another piece that I think would just be best labeled as “musicologically confusing.” Joaquín Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un Gentillhombre is just one of those pieces you know if twentieth-century Spanish art music tickles your musical tastebuds. A composer whose life spanned virtually the entire century (1901-1999), Rodrigo is often viewed as the second coming of Manuel de Falla for his use of nationalist idioms, as well as his position as a scholar. Although Rodrigo’s conservative style was not necessarily mirrored and embraced by his contemporaries, his command of melody was something that everyone could agree on in their assessment of his output.

This piece transports the listener back to the Spanish Baroque with its settings of elegant dances, such as the españoleta. Originally composed for classical guitar and orchestra, James Galway arranged it for solo flute as a means to expand his repertoire, and this evening gave us a technically brilliant performance by principal flutist Emily Skala. I do not want to say too much about this performance in the sense that Skala was fabulous and the orchestra still appeared to be comatose from the Strauss; however, something has to be said for Galway’s arrangement. The texture and timbre created by a solo flute and a string-heavy orchestral score rapidly turned a piece based on Spanish idioms into something that sounded like Celtic highland dance music. The melodic flourishes and sometimes skewed rhythms inadvertently helped this piece lose a lot of its charm. Something with this kind of flavor should be kept far away from Michael Flatley, that is, unless the world feels it can tolerate “El Señor del Baile, versión española.” (And before anyone feels the need to give me a history lesson, I am well aware of the Celtic origins of Galicia, but our composer is actually from a city in Valencia.)

I feel I have to be honest and confess that I really wanted to leave Strathmore during intermission, but my sense of responsibility kept me in my seat, and I am actually glad it did. After a rather disappointing first half, the BSO came back on stage with Juanjo Mena and seemed as if they had endured an epiphany. I have no idea what it is about Beethoven that draws out such excitement and expression in musicians, but the Seventh Symphony and all its perky dotted rhythms and sprightly character finally allowed me to see what this orchestra is capable of as an ensemble.

From the very first note there was magic being made right in front of me. (In fact, I was so ecstatic to hear and see such a lively and lovely performance that I neglected to notice Mena conducting without a score until the Allegretto, as well as in a manner that made me in the audience want to jump on stage and play along.) I could be here forever pointing out all the wonderful things and charming essence of the BSO’s delivery, but I am afraid my words will detract from the majesty of it all. I have no idea what happened backstage during intermission, but whatever it was, this orchestra certainly redeemed itself with this rousing performance. It almost leaves me wondering if there is something about middle-period Beethoven symphonies that just incite brilliance in the hearts of musicians...


Anonymous said...

Vandetta-Girl strikes again.

Princess Alpenrose said...

Good review, and very interesting! Felt like we were there with you. (still chuckling over the Lord of the Dance warning!)

Glad you stayed for the Beethoven ...