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Live Review: Colin Currie, Hannu Lintu Take Finns To Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (2010. 04.09)

Conductor Hannu Lintu, borrowed by the BSO for the night from Finland’s Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra, earned rave roars from the audience for his execution of Beethoven’s Seventh. But don’t let that fool you… this man makes the case for modern music.

It’s no accident then that he shared the night with Scottish percussionist Colin Currie. I saw Colin Currie play a tour de force solo show back in December ’06 – thanks to the Shriver Hall Concerts.  His arsenal of percussive equipment took up the entire breadth of stage at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s auditorium, and he raced up and down the full spectrum without tiring. And two encores!

This time, Currie indulged us with Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Incantations. This was another BSO co-commission. The opening movement strikes with intense immediacy, as if we’re in a play that’s started at the middle… after the king’s already been dethroned and before a new one takes over. The strings lend a chorale-like backdrop to Currie’s handiwork on the xylophone. At the work’s height — the Expressivo — Currie’s vibes created a crisp, almost geometric force laid over the messy, teeming world.

Racing back and forth from vibes to xylophone and back again backed, as in the open, by violins made one question who was the “skin” — the fluid melodic being — in this music and who the “skeleton” — an impression, which stands the whole idea of percussion in a piece on its head. After all, what is percussion in most symphonic works but underpinning and punctuation? The main punctuations here came with Currie’s quick, almost comedic strikes of the chimes.

Rautavaara certainly underutilized Currie’s skills here, despite composing at Currie’s request. The overall impression of the work, while engaging, never coalesced into something truly stratospheric — which I maintain is the necessary condition of calling something an “incantation.” I mean, it is about a shaman after all.

Back in the day, Jean Sibelius awarded Rautavaara a music scholarship, calling him: “the most promising Finn” on the scene. Now, Mr. Rautavaara is an advanced 81 years old and very much beloved by his countrymen. So it was perfectly just to compare the two Finns by an opener of Jean Sibelius’ famous Finlandia.

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Live Review: Brubecks’ Ansel Adams: America – Baltimore Symphony Paints Pictures in Music (2010.12.02)

First off, apologies for being quiet on the classical front. While you may be inclined to trek out to any show at all hours, the majority of the symphony and chamber audience express trepidation on ice. The biggest casualties of the snow: BSO’s Porgy And Bess, and the Candlelight Concert Society’s All-Beethoven program with the Leipzig Quartet, which could have gone down as my “concert of the decade” — had it only happened. (Chin up, readers, the elusive and exemplary Leipzig players may still return in late 2010-2011).

When the BSO struck up the opening of Dave and Chris Brubeck’s Ansel Adams: America concertgoers settled into their seats once again after a forced absence. Composer Chris Brubeck appeared on-stage as a complete surprise. Maestra Marin Alsop invited him to say a few words, “Since you’re alive.” And he told us of hanging clouds and suspended chords (before proceeding to sit down just in front of me). Those clouds came, of course, from Ansel Adams’ photographs.

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Live Review: Leila Josefowicz Gives John Adams’ Violin Concerto Total Depth (2009.10.29)

josefowicz10_high-croppedJohn AdamsViolin Concerto comes across like a melodic discourse on gravitational forces, but a touch more tender. Alien tensions built slowly from the BSO, with little far-off explosions. The center around which this Adamonic universe whirled was Leila Josefowicz.

She’s the personal champion for this concerto, making it her signature piece, a task only a Hilary Hahn could envy.  She plays entirely from memory, giving full impression of a piece taken within — the raw stuff of notes — spit out with unexpected expression. I’d have to think even Adams is surprised at what she finds in it.

Without hearing a single other play it, I’m willing to bet she’s the definitive interpreter of the work. Read the rest…

Live Review: Bartók vs. Bartók – BSO trumps National, Harmonia Lends Hungary For the Night

Bartok-DSC_2150Last weekend, a wonderful conjunction took place among the Baltimore-Washington musical spheres: Bartók’s music overtook its two great concert halls on the very same night.

To compare Baltimore’s own playing Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and the NSO’s take on Bartók’s The Wooden Prince is like pitting a Shakespeare tragedy against one of his comedies, and venturing that one is far better.

While it may not be fair to pit a concerto against a ballet score, we’ll give the BSO, under Maestro Marin Alsop’s baton, the upper hand. Both orchestras did fantastic things we’ve never quite heard before. Bartók brings out the best of an orchestra because he’s not something you can take for granted. You can take Beethoven’s “Pastoral” for granted. You might even take Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto for granted, but James Ehnes’ ample sprezzatura helped the BSO make a great case for Tchaikovsky, perhaps better than the composer himself when he called it “One violin concerto too many” – despite its being the only one that he composed.

Here’s what tips the scales in favor of B-more…

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Live Review: Time for Three Takes The Carpet Center Stage at the BSO (2009.09.24)

time for three

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MP3: Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs – Orange Blossom Special

Move over Tchaikovsky, step aside Brahms. Time for Three steals the season opener from the classical crowns.  Tf3 does what Hilary Hahn did last season: highlight the skills of fellow Curtis Institute heavyweight and composer Jennifer Higdon.

This time, the blues-jazz-gypsy trio of classically trained fellas takes on Higdon’s Concerto 4-3.  The name is a little schticky, but the East Tennessee bluegrass fiddling and bass-slapping ring sincere.  As she did for Hilary, Higdon composed this piece especially for the trio, debuting in Philly last year.

Zach De Pue started us off, his violin chugging like a shaking train.  The bassist enters with slaps down the strings, the second violin starts racing, bow hairs already breaking…and we’re off.

Of the three, bassist Ranaan Meyer holds the reins. Highly-endorsed are his beatings of the cello’s body with naked fist.  The two fiddlers, Zach and Nick Kendall seduce with hipster charms, perhaps hamming up their onstage personas a touch too much.  They listen well to each other – the mark of any good improv group – but they amplify the pantomime of listening with foot nudges and shoulder-hunkerings, just as they amplify their strings.

I’d say Higdon left the symphony with little to do. Although, when the players were called upon, what came through strongest was the passion of conductor Marin Alsop.  These are the works Alsop digs!  It’s all in her shoulders and her tempi. And that is a great sign for a season opener: conviction.

Frankly, I missed a lot of what happened in Higdon’s Violin Concerto: orchestra section stars playing one-on-one with curious pairings against the soloist.  In this case, Higdon trivialized the moment by letting too much of Zach v. Nick rock the stage.  Whenever the orchestra entered we tended to get majestic arcs of sound that were brief – probably for fear of turning torrid, then insipid.

What matters most perhaps is that the bejeaned guy next to me, clearly on a date, felt happy enough in the hall to kick off his shoes, and enjoyed Tf3’s encore, “Orange Blossom Special,” completely open-mouthed.  This encore really cemented the night on the family porch feel, strongly contrasting Tchaikovsky’s Symphony #4 that closed the show.  Movement 3 was a highlight: pizzicato strings formed little eruptions like popping corn straight into grade A oboe work.    The vigor of the finale had Peabody kids in raptures, but I remain unconverted to Tchaikovsky.

Live Review: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho Hijacks Baltimore Symphony (2009.07.10)

pyschoshower130x130Who knew the word “transvestite” would be uttered aloud in the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to such ringing laughter from a raucous movie house audience.  The Landmark and the Charles Theater have nothing on the BSO showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

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Live Review / Preview: BSO Season Closer, Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3…And Summer Music Preview (2009.06.12)


The BSO tackled the great Rach 3, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minorwith the help of soloist Yefim Bronfman.  The 1996 Jeffrey Rush film, Shine, made a modern plug for its popularity, but Vladimir Horowitz was the master (and master propagandist) of the work, which earned him rapturous applause and television specials.  Rachmaninoff offered this testament of Horowitz: “He swallowed it whole. He had the courage, the intensity, the daring.”

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Live Review: Hilary Hahn Burns Blue in New Concerto at the BSO (2009. 06.04)

The Hypergiant of Higdon's Universe

The Hypergiant of Higdon's Universe

Whatever extraordinary things you’ve heard about Baltimore-native Hilary Hahn (Wiki) are true. I am probably the one classical devotee who’s never owned, borrowed, burned or downloaded a single track of Ms. Hahn’s playing, Brahms or otherwise. To experience her for the first time, live and seated four rows from the front, revealed she’s not a player…she’s a phenomenon of nature.

To have her precisely punctuate the intimacies and imagination of a composer new to me, Jennifer Higdon (Wiki), made for pure transfixion.

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Live Review: Introducing Hot Young Conductor – Jacomo Rafael Bairos (2009.04.29)


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MP3: Claude Debussy – La Mer, 3. Dialogue du vent et de la mer

Welcome to a special treat courtesy of the graduate department at Peabody Conservatory. In honor of its degree candidates — in everything from instruments, vocals, and conducting — we’ve got an end of season festival of free music from the talented young peeps on the Baltimore Classical scene. I recommend you check out a few in the coming week.

Not every performance is a prize recital, but some of them should be. For what it’s worth, I’d crown debuting conductor Jacomo Rafael Bairos with my laurels.

Lucky for us, he assured me that he’s staying on at Peabody to pursue his Doctorate. So we’ll follow him in future posts. This fellow has good friends, and, if his ambition be judged by his repertory choices, he’s ready to tackle big things.

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Live Review: Prayer and Bath of Benediction – Mahler and Bernstein with Marin at the BSO (2009.04.05)

Mahler's Ninth -- a Dance of Life

Mahler's Ninth -- a Dance of Life

I thought I could walk away from three Sundays ago’s BSO performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and wash it all away with a little leftover Dom Perignon down at Sotta Sopra.

But I couldn’t. The Ninth haunts me. I’m walking down the street on a Tuesday, and suddenly, the first movement swells in my ears once again…flooding my brain. The very sidewalk under my feet seems to transform into an immaterial wave of string-song — I lose my bearings.

To quell the swoons, I’ve picked up a prescription: Lenny Berstein’s recording, as well as Mahler protégé Otto Klemperer’s take. But here’s where Marin Alsop started me off…

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