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BSO at Odds

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Mozart, Violin Concertos, J. Ehnes, Mozart Anniversary Orchestra

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Bartók, Violin Concertos / Viola Concerto, J. Ehnes, BBC Philharmonic, G. Noseda
The news about the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has been grim in recent years: ticket sales are down (in Baltimore, if not in their southern home at Strathmore), salaries were cut, red ink looms everywhere, and some players have abandoned ship. When the National Symphony Orchestra was rudderless and floundering, the BSO rose above their competitor in programming and quality of playing, in the early tenure of their music director, Marin Alsop. In the last few years, however, the BSO seems to have gone into survival mode, and fewer and fewer of their concerts have made it on to my calendar. This week's program, a rather dull selection of Mozart and Debussy (all of it programmed at some point by the BSO in the last five years) heard at Strathmore on Thursday night, confirmed this assessment, an orchestra that sounded listless, distracted, disorganized, and uninspired.

Guest conductor Louis Langrée, music director of Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival, should have done better by the Mozart first half. He has a precise, almost fussy beat and prefers his Mozart gestures big and splashy, for example giving the upward scalar flourish that opens the first movement of the "Paris" symphony (no. 31, K. 297, D major) a bold and emphatic shape, but the BSO responded with playing that was far from crisp and unified. There were pleasing moments -- the honeyed tone of the violins and lilting movement of the second movement -- but whether under-rehearsed or underwhelmed (it was hard to tell) this was a lackluster, sometimes maladroit performance.

The orchestra sounded more coordinated in Mozart's third violin concerto, backing up the patrician solo of Canadian violinist James Ehnes. On his "Marsick" Stradivarius (1715), Ehnes produced a clean, burnished tone, with meticulous articulation contrasting crunchy detached notes with smooth legato ones. It is a broad, gorgeous sound, not overblown or with a nervous vibrato, although he did tend to play just a scintilla sharp of where the orchestra was (intonation did not settle into place as it should have). Ehnes gave a performance that was nearly flawless -- just the last few high notes of the first movement's cadenza a little sour, for example -- but not quite engaging or daring, in spite of his considerable technique. The second movement was an effortlessly soaring, spun-out cantilena, and the folk episode of the third movement made up for a real clunker somewhere in the cello or bass section in an earlier episode of the movement.

Other Articles:

Tim Smith, Louis Langree leads Baltimore Symphony in vivid night of Mozart, Debussy (Baltimore Sun, October 22)

Joe Banno, Louis Langree and the Baltimore Symphony do justice to Mozart and Debussy (Washington Post, October 22)

Marie Gullard, Violinist James Ehnes and BSO: Keeping Mozart fresh (Washington Examiner, October 19)
Claude Debussy has his 150th birthday coming up next year, but of the French composer's works that would be welcome listening neither of Langrée's choices are exactly underplayed. One of the highlights of the evening was the flute solo, by principal Emily Skala, that opened the sultry Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Pierre Boulez once identified this piece, with its aimless flute solo, as having "brought new breath to the art of music" because it overthrew "the very concept of form itself." There were many nice touches, like the softness of the strings allowing the woodwind solos to predominate, the tinges of harp and antique cymbal, but one never had the sense that Langrée is the sort of conductor who obsesses over the details of sound. A similar practicality seemed to govern the conductor's well-rehearsed but somewhat business-like approach to the tone poem La Mer, building from a whispered opening to a thrilling swell in the first movement. In the more agitated parts of the third movement, though, the same lack of ensemble unity crept in to the sound, reinforcing the impression of a group of musicians at sixes and sevens.

Next week, guest conductor Vasily Petrenko takes the reins of the BSO, in another less-than-daring program: Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, and Liszt's first piano concerto, with Barry Douglas as soloist (October 28 to 30).


Anonymous said...

You are so clearly clueless. You also have little experience with this orchestra in concert, or it would have been clear to you that it was not Emily Skala playing the flute solo, unless she underwent a race change.

"A dull selection of Mozart and Debussy..." you write with such a hatred of music and musicians that it seems you should pursue another career.

Charles T. Downey said...

Sorry about misidentifying the flutist. I actually couldn't see who was playing from my vantage point, and I assumed it would be the principal flutist playing that solo. Whoever it was sounded great!

"A dull selection of Mozart and Debussy" has nothing to do with hating music or musicians. It is an assessment of the programming. On the contrary, I have great respect for this orchestra and am worried about what is happening to it.

Also, if you want to follow up on your comment, please sign your message with your real name.