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Baiba Skride Kindles a Fire at Strathmore

Baiba SkrideTo the unfamiliar sounds of Stephen Albert’s Tapioca orchestral work, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra opened their Turkey digestion concert (Friday after Thanksgiving) under the baton of Hans Graf at Strathmore. With bells and whistles, this charming and amusingly cacophonous appetizer of a fanfare – no longer than three minutes – is not a dyslexic's attempt at mimicking Sibelius but a 14-year-old Zinman concocted running joke involving the BSO and Tapioca Pudding à la Rhubarb Pie, courtesy of Garrison Keillor. It depicts, in part, the dubious pleasure that a lactose-intolerant person (Albert) would derive from that dessert.

In theory it might be lamented that even in the serious classical arts business, much emphasis is placed on how a performer looks. It may not yet be a requirement to be a runway model in order to strut onto the stage of major concert halls, but it helps and is increasingly important. How many female violinists do you know that are – how to put this diplomatically – less convincing visually than they are acoustically? Nor are male artists safe from this trend. (Even Ionarts has discussed a performer’s hair recently.)

In practice, however, we don’t really mind. Especialy not if as delectable a Latvian as Baiba Skride comes on stage in a fiery red dress that tantalizingly threatened to fall off. Our shallow side is addressed and our shallow side duly responds. But good looks didn’t win this 24-year-old the Queen Elizabeth competition in 2001 and surely were not the deciding factor for the Nippon Music Foundation to loan her the Wilhemj Stradivarius. With that instrument in hand, Mlle. Skride produced a very rich and resonant, burnished and blooming sound (like an ideal viola) in Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole. In the first movement her playing that was not always a model of cleanliness but throughout her tone was supported by an enviably electric, tight vibrato.

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Mozart/Haydn, Violin Concertos, B.Skride / Haenchen CPEB Orch.
A few weeks ago I found a Sony release with the then still unknown-to-me violinist on my desk. The combination of another Mozart concerto and pretty girl draped across the cover (in the Janine Janson style) didn’t seem very promising (speaking of which – a review of Anne Sofie Mutter’s new disc will be forthcoming shortly) but proved to be highly agreeable. The Mozart is very entertaining and interestingly coupled with a Michael Haydn concerto. I’ve since listened to the recording many more times with unabated joy, which created some anticipation for her live appearance. She was kind enough not to let us down.

Other Reviews:

Andrew Lindemann Malone, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Washington Post, November 28)
Hans Graf milked the BSO’s brass in the Andante to broad and full effect, reveling in the noise the players made in the rich sounding and no longer booming Strathmore Hall. Baiba Skride elicited strong approval in the preceding movements already (the audience duly applauding every single one of the five movements) but showed that the lyrical section suited her just as well if not better. A nearby colleague wiggled and nodded along through the concluding Rondo – a good sign, certainly, and visually affirming my perception of the light-footed and agile way she had with this anti-Brahms virtuoso piece. Part of the delight came from a performance that audibly placed joy over note-perfection (not that there were any glaring mistakes in it, anyway), which made it so infectious. It was a performance like a broad smile – enthusiastically received.

After intermission, however, the concert experience was seriously derailed by a speech of the orchestra librarian, Ms. Plaine. Nomen est omen. Sorry that I did not care that there is a copy and fax machine (and some workspace!) in the BSO music library. Or that I think that a good orchestra librarian’s job is to work efficiently in the background, not give murderously boring and inarticulate speeches. Bonding with the audience had better be left to the musicians, Maestro Graf, and Tchaikovsky’s 1st Symphony – the slight Winter Dreams-subtitled work of a then 26-year-old composer. The “sin of [his] sweet youth” (Tchaikovsky about the first symphony) and meticulously revised work heavily foreshadows the Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker in the first movement, and while it is a far cry from the last three symphonies of his, it is charming in its own right, nothing too heavy yet impeccably Russian and Romantic. Hans Graf, Kapellmeister with a Romantic touch, reigned over an amiable at first, then excellent, performance (the finale, a sort-of five-minute “variation on how to end a Romantic symphony,” was brought to its elongated climax beautifully) that far more eloquently made the point that audiences ought to turn out to hear the BSO’s concerts at Strathmore. Repeat performances will take place in Baltimore’s Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall tonight at 8PM and tomorrow, Sunday, at 3PM.