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Juanjo Mena and the BSO

Conductor Juanjo Mena

A talented conductor puts an orchestra at ease in the most natural way, taking the musicians and the listener alike along for the ride. This was the case with Juanjo Mena's latest appearance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, heard on Saturday evening in the Music Center at Strathmore. Last heard with the BSO in 2012, the Spanish conductor currently serves as chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, and they are lucky to have him.

Prokofiev's first symphony, a neoclassical bagatelle that shows off the young composer's bona fides, made a sweet opener. With the first movement set at a genial tempo, the musicians seemed comfortable right from the start, giving a cute, lopsided quality to the charming second theme, especially when it returned off the beat. Mena had ensured that the balances were all optimal, so that no other gestures were required during performance, revealing delicate, pearly sounds at the soft end of the dynamic spectrum. The Gavotte had a slightly exaggerated, pompous feel, followed by a finale with Offenbach zing.

Glazunov's violin concerto provided some Romantic meat in the middle of the program, with BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney giving a rich, loamy sound on the opening theme. Intonation issues cropped up again and again, perhaps from a lack of agreement between orchestra and soloist. Carney is a first-rate soloist, and he had some beautiful moments, like the flautando introduction to the big cadenza, but the more daring spiccato and double-stop stuff in the third movement was not always as clean as it could have been.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, BSO at Strathmore: A confident, open-hearted guest conductor (Washington Post, September 28)

Tim Smith, Juanjo Mena, BSO and eloquent music-making; Carney shines in concerto (Washington Post, September 27)
Mena's approach to the main course, Beethoven's sixth symphony, was refreshingly old school -- big string sections, tempos on the moderate to slow side, much of the possible roughness smoothed out in undulating legato phrasing. In such familiar music, he could often set the tempo and then allow the orchestra to regulate itself, using his arms and body to show the long lines he wanted, although with some of the slow tempos he seemed to reconsider midway through, moving the pace ahead slightly.

With the emphasis on somewhat leisurely speeds, the third movement felt especially reserved, the horn fanfares less like boisterous intrusions. On the other hand, Beethoven's additive orchestration -- trumpets joining in the third movement; trombones, thunderous timpani, and fife-bright piccolo in the fourth -- stood out. Only in the especially drawn out fifth movement did the musicians not quite seem all to agree, causing some ensemble uncertainty, further muting the sense of climax to the somewhat odd conclusion to this symphony.

Next week Markus Stenz returns to the podium of the BSO, for the first time as Principal Guest Conductor, with an all-Mozart program including scenes from Don Giovanni with Jennifer Black and Angela Meade (October 1 and 4).

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