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January 16, 2009

BSO provides antidote to the cold

Call it the sleeper concert of the season, so far.

Stephane DeneveOn paper, this week's Baltimore Symphony program looked a little, well, dull. Not that I wasn't intrigued to hear a performance led by French conductor Stephane Deneve, who has been generating a good deal of buzz for several years now (and whose head of wildly explosive hair rivals James Levine's -- it's grown considerably since the photo at left was taken). Or that I wasn't interested in experiencing French pianist Frank Braley. This is the BSO debut for both musicians. 

But the two all-orchestral pieces on the bill, Ravel's La Valse and Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, have hardly been long absent on BSO concerts. Both were specialities of former music director Yuri Temirkanov; the latter was conducted as recently as June 2006 by current music director Marin Alsop. As for the third item on the bill, Cesar Franck's Symphonic Variations, it's not exactly a barnburner.

So there I was last night, tired and chilled, at Meyerhoff Hall, expecting to be mildly diverted. So much for making assumptions.

From the first rapt, barely audible, barely moving notes of the Ravel score, Deneve had my attention. The conductor went on to push, pull, tweak, finesse and almost pummel the work to create a deliciously eventful interpretation. I wasn't convinced by all of the little tempo fluctuations and phrase-bending along the way, but the music had a hot freshness as it progressed from that misty opening to the dizzying whirl of the coda. The BSO hung on more or less tightly through it all; the rough patches in articulation should be smoothed over by tonight's repeat performance.

Frank BraleyWhen the dancing mood resumed after intermission, Deneve gave Rachmaninoff's brilliant score an equally compelling treatment that combined effective proportions of tautness and elasticity. The conductor paid keen attention to the bittersweetness that seems so much a part of this piece, and he deftly drew out the dramatic coloring of the instrumentation. Again, there were a few unsettled spots in the playing, but the orchestra poured on the tonal and expressive warmth. Gary Louie molded the melancholy sax solo in the first movement to eloquent effect. 

In between the orchestral showpieces, Franck's compact, modest non-concerto held its own firmly. There is a lot of gold in this work, and the longhaired, zero-body-fat, chicly attired Braley (right -- not as he appeared last night) knew how to extract the keyboard portion of it, using crystalline articulation and phrasing of considerable refinement and imagination. The conductor saw to it that the orchestral also fulfilled its role with personality.

All in all, a great evening for Franck, Ravel and Rachmaninoff, and a memorable local debut by two exceptional Frenchmen. The program will be performed tonight at the Meyerhoff, tomorrow night at Strathmore -- well worth braving the arctic chill.   


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:08 AM | | Comments (1)


I was impressed by the easy musicality of Deneve, as opposed to Alsop's on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown approach. He drew forth beautiful orchestral color, his sense of rhythm was esquisite, his rapport with the orchestra evident. They loved playing for him.
The Ravel was more intense than I've ever heard it - certainly not like Temirkanov's ever cool and restrained approach - indeed shattering at the conclusion.
The Franck was played softly and delicately; at times you could barely hear Braley - just sense his silvery tone and delicate articulation.
I wonder why Tim's review doesn't appear in the Sun pages - nor did his review of last week's concert. Only in the blog. Nor was last week's major concert reviewed in the Washsington Post. Puzzling.
Also puzzling is the very light turn-out for this season's concerts. I attended on Friday and there were large open areas of seats - unfortunately right in the center of the theater - from the premium orchestra back to the rear orchestra. Deneve looked out and seemed to do a double take;the sides were largely unpopulated. The center a void. Except for the Bernstein Mass, most of the concerts havn't had audiences that have filled more than, say, 60% of the seats. Wasn't Alsop shooting for 85%?
With Alsop's high visibility and large personality, the low ticket prices, the innovative programming, I cannot account for the plenitude of empty seats.

Thanks for your thoughtful commentary. I'm glad you enjoyed the Deneve/Braley combo as much as I did. A few comments of my own: Attendance. Thursday nights at Meyerhoff have been especially problematic, and there are something likefive less of them this season as a result. I wouldn't be surprised if that night disappears totally in some future season, which could make the remaining nights look much better. As for your Friday experience, I wonder if it was cold-related, since audiences here do seem to hate any kind of discomfort -- cold, rain, snow. I've long noticed a drop-off when conditions outside are not great. That said, we aren't getting the sort of turnout on a regular basis that we should, and some of Alsop's concerts are not necessarily getting the bump-up in attendance they enjoyed last season. I suppose we can all blame the economy. I suspect there's more to it, though, many different causes. Now, as for reviews. The recent redesign of the Sun made things tricky for me to get reviews in, and the situation will vary from week to week. I did, however, get a mention of the Brahms concert into print in my Thursday column, and I'll try to put some words about the Deneve performance into this week's column. I'm glad you found the reviews online, since, as you know, the Web is where we all seem to be heading more and more, day by day. Tim

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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