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Witches and Wizardry with the BSO

Yuja Wang, pianist, photo by Christian Steiner
Yuja Wang, pianist
(photo by Christian Steiner)
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra opened this week's series of concerts last night to a well-sold house in the Music Center at Strathmore. A major part of the excitement about this program was the latest appearance of the sensational young pianist Yuja Wang. Returning to the BSO after a well-received 2005 outing with the first Liszt concerto, Wang's ferocious technique has become seasoned and more formidable, as was displayed during her Terrace Theater recital in January. This time, it was the compact and daring first piano concerto (D-flat major, op. 10) by Sergei Prokofiev, and if it was an uneven performance, it was not due to Wang's technique. Plowing through the masses of notes with urgency, she pushed the tempo of the first movement (Allegro brioso) from the start. There were not many noticeably dropped notes, it seemed, until the third movement, where the issues of pacing and alignment between soloist, conductor, and orchestra became most pronounced.

Guest conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier clearly had the BSO feeling energized, but his unusual gestures and unorthodox beat proved confusing among sections throughout the evening. This was most disastrous at the return of the first-movement theme toward the end of the third movement, which took considerable time to settle into the right tempo. The balance between the orchestra and the Strathmore Steinway, which seemed too mellow in voicing for the work, was weighted toward the former direction. Wang can pack a wallop for such a slight young woman, but there was much wizardry from her hands that was simply lost in the wash. Most regrettably, the audience, although clearly impressed by the show, did not have enough stamina in its applause to coax an encore from Wang. To get an idea of what we may have missed, watch the video embedded below.

Yuja Wang played two encores at the Friday performance, including the Mozart-Volodos.

Sarasate-Horowitz, Carmen Fantasy, played by Yuja Wang
(see also her Mozart-Volodos, Rondo alla Turca)

The headline of the program was saved for the second half, Berlioz's incendiary Symphonie fantastique, op. 14. This is music of theatrical appeal, the combination of the composer's hallucinatory autobiographical program and his legendary mastery of orchestration. Falling desperately in love with English Irish actress Harriet Smithson, only to be rejected, Berlioz worked out his frustrations by writing a symphony about his obsessive love and bizarre opium-induced dreams of murdering her, being guillotined for his crime, and watching his soul tormented during a Black Mass celebrated by a coven of witches, including his beloved. Against all odds, Smithson later heard the work and sought out Berlioz. Although they eventually were married, they divorced not long afterward -- who could have seen that coming?

Yan Pascal Tortelier, conductor
(photo courtesy of IMG Artists)
Here Tortelier used no score, which allowed a greater freedom of communication with the players but also tends to reinforce idiosyncratic interpretative choices. In the first movement, the Tempo I marking at measure 28 was not really observed until the Plus vite tempo was re-established at the marking sans rallentir (measure 49), and the long rest (three measures dramatically marked SILENCE at measure 231) seemed cheated. Quibbling aside, the playing was often richly colored and arresting, especially the first statement of the idée fixe (the melody that represents the object of the artist's love throughout the piece), over percussive string attacks, and the confusion of sounds in the wild passion of the recapitulation. The coda, marked Religiosamente (Tout l'orchestre aussi doux que possible), could have been much closer to ppp. The second-movement Bal was a feverish dance, a waltz to drive you mad (before Ravel's La Valse), and the English horn and off-stage oboe duet in the pastoral third movement was pleasingly rustic (quite demanding for the oboist filling in for the principal, reportedly on maternity leave).

The memorable parts of the symphony, of course, are the opium hallucinations in the final two movements. Tortelier turned in a "forced march" to the scaffold, set at a harried pace that seemed to unsettle the brass a little, leaving the performance less solid that it should have been. As is most commonly done, the two ophicleide parts were played by tubas, a change that Berlioz himself sanctioned in later revisions of the score. I missed a little more splat from the third trombone on those low B-flats in the blaring sections conjuring revolutionary bands, but the dynamic indicated is only mf. The fifth movement was the high point, with bone-chilling bells tolling, the gloomy strains of the Dies Irae, and cackling solos from the E-flat clarinet and other woodwinds for the witches.

Other Reviews:

T. L. Ponick, Fantastic sounds on piano dazzling (Washington Times, April 26)

Anne Midgette, The BSO's Freaky 'Favorites' (Washington Post, April 28)

Tim Smith, Vibrancy of Tortelier, BSO resonates loud and clear (Baltimore Sun, April 28)
The opening of the concert was given to an attempt to revive the neotonal music of Richard Yardumian, with the revised version of the Armenian-American composer's Armenian Suite. If, as the program notes by Janet E. Bedell put it, the piece does refer to the "sad history of the Armenians, especially in the early 20th century when hundreds of thousands were slaughtered by the Turks" (just don't call it a genocide!), it gives a fairly saccharine view. Bedell also inform us that "in our post-serial, neo-Romantic era, [Yardumian] seems ready for rediscovery," coinciding with recent pronouncements that serialism is indeed dead. If the music of Elliott Carter is to be succeeded by facile, bottom-drawer fluff like the Yardumian suite, we will be the poorer for it. A couple of percussion swells, brass fanfare, some Hollywood string writing -- it could have been the soundtrack of a grand historical drama on the big screen. Please put it back in the drawer where you found it.

This concert will be repeated tonight (8 pm), Saturday (8 pm), and Sunday (3 pm), in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore.


Anonymous said...

Wasn't Harriet Smithson Irish?

Charles T. Downey said...

Yes, of course she was. Correction noted with thanks.