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BSO's Beethoven and Martinů

After a sensitive reading of Bruckner's 7th symphony last week, Günther Herbig was back in front of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for this weekend's concerts. With no concert at Strathmore, it meant a trip to Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Friday night, and well worth the effort. Once again, the musicians and the conductor indicated, by their playing and reactions after playing, that they have considerable respect for one another. The program opened with one of the little string sinfonias (no. 10, B minor) that Felix Mendelssohn wrote as a teenager. Occasionally exceptional students of mine will ask me to look at their compositions. Any teacher would be thrilled to see their 13-year-old student compose something like what Mendelssohn did (he would have been an 8th or 9th grader). The BSO gave a warm and pleasing performance of this one-movement work, which for whatever reason Mendelssohn wrote in five parts, dividing the violas (perhaps he had been listening to the Mozart string quintets).

The Mendelssohn was only the appetizer to a two-course meal of major symphonies, beginning with the sixth and final symphony of Bohuslav Martinů, an Ionarts favorite. Premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1955, during the composer's mostly unhappy sojourn in the United States, the work is a chimeric series of vignettes, loosely divided into three movements, that Martinů called Fantaisies symphoniques. The work seems to revisit the many chameleon-like transformations of the composer's style, chromatic swarms of bees, an atonal main theme in the first movement, folk-based melodic fragments, and even neoclassical film score writing. We commend Herbig for programming this profound modern symphony and for leading such a varied, well-sculpted performance.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, The BSO on a Very Good Night (Washington Post, May 26)

Tim Smith, Welcome exposure for Martinu (Baltimore Sun, May 26)
The second half of the concert was devoted to one of the most popular works in the symphonic literature, Beethoven's fifth symphony. Martinů refused to comment on the programmatic idea that he claimed lay behind his sixth symphony, although the tension and escape to fantasy seem to be related to the uneasiness of the time of its composition. All Beethoven reportedly said to Anton Schindler about his fifth symphony was that its now famous opening measures represented Fate knocking at the door. Whatever the sound may have meant, those repeated notes pervade the entire symphony, not just the first movement. This was also an excellent performance by the BSO, with Herbig paying particular attention to the soft dynamics, often ignored in Beethoven, which helped make the triumphant sections stand out more. Herbig may have pushed the tempo in the fast movements just a notch too far, as some of the motifs were a little muddied, but this was exciting listening.

Music Director Designate Marin Alsop will lead the Baltimore Symphony for two interesting programs in June, featuring Antonín Dvořák's 9th symphony and the Elgar cello concerto with Alisa Weilerstein (June 7 at Strathmore, June 8 to 10 in Baltimore) and the Brahms 4th symphony and Korngold violin concerto with Jonathan Carney in the season finale (June 14, 15, 17 in Baltimore, June 16 at Strathmore). Günther Herbig will be back with the BSO once next season (November 8 and 9, 2007), for Schubert's 9th symphony and the Sibelius violin concerto.

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