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BSO Summer Thursdays at Strathmore No.1: "Almost Baroque"

Bach, VerunglimpftThe Best of Baroque as programmed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s associate conductor Andrew Constantine for the first of the BSO’s Summer Thursday Classical Hitparade concerts at Strathmore consisted of liberally lushified fare; Handel via Hamilton Harty (Overture to the Music for a Royal Fireworks), Bach amplified by Stokowski, more “Bach”, but á la Elgar, Handel cum Brahms as imagined by Rubbra. Somewhere in between was hiding a bit of echt Telemann and Pachelbel.

Speaking of the latter: after having successfully avoided and averted Pachelbel’s ominously famous Canon in two decades of concert-going, it finally caught up with me. Maestro Constantine bothered to conduct (one imagines a “start” and a “stop” signal should have sufficed) and the result was most unhappy. Some back-seat fiddles of the temporarily reduced orchestra did not agree on the same intonation – but more worryingly, the whole canon lumped about like a troglodyte with one leg shorter than the other.

The preceding mostly-strings reworking of the Royal Firework Music produced a much finer – if not per se “refined” – sound, delighting in its own right. Similarly pleased the following Telemann Concerto for two Violas. It’s always good to hear Telemann’s name and music spread – especially with this, one of his most popular works.

Sheep may safely graze in Bach’s aria from the “Hunt” Cantata – and since that was a success, Leopold Stokowski had the brilliant idea to let even more sheeps graze, and even more safely! The result is at the edge of good taste, but still on the right side – and one of the prettier Stokowski transcriptions of Bach. “Elgar or Bach?” was the question in the orchestration of the Fantasia & Fugue in C-minor BWV537 and the answer is clearly “Elgar” – especially in the Fantasia. But that probably works to its advantage: Personal coleur of a composer is more interesting in an orchestration than straight forward enlargement and bombastization. Webern’s and Berg’s transcriptions (be it Johann Strauss II or Bach or Schubert) are more interesting to listen to than Stokowski’s or Raff’s for that reason… because you can hear their own idiom and how it relates to the original.

Baltimore Symphony Associate Conductor Andrew ConstantineAlas, this is not a necessary prerequisite for a successful orchestration. Schoenberg, easily the best transcriber/orchestrater since Musorgsky and Mahler, was able to stay astonishingly close to original compositions and still managed to add more to a work than he took away. And so the Handel-twice-removed Variations & Fugue in B-flat op.24 came as a very welcome curiosity on that Thursday program. Brahms, who arranged nearly his entire orchestral output for piano-four hands, knew his share of taking and reshaping the Handel Aria (from the B-flat keyboard suite) in his image. Edmund Rubbra (1901 – 1986), one of the great (!), though sadly neglected, English composers, orchestrated it tastefully and with an entertaining variety of textures, all the way to the great concluding fugue. Whereas some of the pieces in this “Baroque Hitparade” felt a little like sucking on a can of whipped cream (your mouth is full but with very little substance), this made for a very strong anchor and highlight in the program. Well worth attending for alone, although perhaps a bit taxing on the younger listeners by virtue of length and structure.

The finale was the Stokowski brutalization of the probably-not-Bach Toccata & Fugue in D-minor which is, shortcomings aside, still dear to us from the orginial Fantasia and which, presumably transcribed from violin to organ in the first place, is still the quintessential organ piece to our ears, anyway. The trudging orchestral version substitutes dignity and gravitas with showmanship and awkwardness and gives only a few really beautiful moments in return. I’d rather have heard the Passacaglia transcription – and then ideally Schoenberg’s, not Stokowski’s. Or, perhaps, one actual piece of Bach instead: perhaps an Orchestral Suite.

Quibbles aside, though, the evening was full of pleasant, accessible fare for the many kids and teenagers present; it was good to see that the $10 tickets for 6-16 year olds had been made good use of. Next Thursday it’s “Chugging Tchaikovsky” with the 1st Piano Concerto and 4th Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero and with the 18-year old Russian-American Natasha Paremski on piano.