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January 30, 2009

Petrenko, Hough, Baltimore Symphony: incendiary

Vasily Petreno conductorIt’s a wonder the fire alarms didn’t go off at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Thursday night. The incendiary match-up of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, guest conductor Vasily Petrenko (right) and piano soloist Stephen Hough produced one of the most memorable concerts of the season. Things should be just as gripping when the hefty, inflammable program is repeated on Saturday.

Petrenko, born and trained in St. Petersburg, where his mentors included Yuri Temirkanov, gives every sign of being the next great Russian conductor. In 2005, at the age of 29, he assumed the podium of England’s Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. He has been winning considerable acclaim for his work there and elsewhere. For his BSO debut, Petrenko chose to make a big statement, packing in one of the longest and most elusive of Shostakovich’s symphonies, No. 8; Tchaikovsky’s sweeping Piano Concerto No. 1; and a rarity (on these shores) by Anatoly Lyadov, the tone poem Kikimora. From the start on Thursday, Petrenko revealed remarkable control of the material and, more importantly, an ability to communicate something beyond cues, tempos and dynamics.

In 1943, Shostakovich composed his Eighth Symphony in the relative safety of the countryside northeast of Moscow. Unlike his Seventh, which captured the attention of the world with what its chilling depiction of the German invasion of the Soviet Union and the defiance of besieged Leningrad, the Eighth presented a disorienting landscape and few signposts. Here, the composer ...

digs deep into the subject of evil and loss. No stirring patriotic chords, just honest, raw emotions. There is brutality in this music, and long stretches of propulsive machine-like pounding. There is aching slowness and shadow, too. But just before the gloomy fourth movement gives way to the fifth, Shostakovich subtly, gently, movingly shifts the tonality to that most comforting and familiar of harmonies, C major. From then on, although violent outbursts will break out, the music ultimately holds out a sliver of hope to hang onto, even as uncertain bass notes question the resolve of the hushed closing chord.

Petrenko deftly shaped this hour-plus, eventful journey of the spirit. The expansive first movement had terrific tension, which he heightened by unleashing the BSO’s substantial power during the waves of percussion crescendos and shrieking brass (Shostakovich's use of this threatening effect seems to have been inspired by a similar one in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2). Petrenko drove the second and third movements hard, maybe too fast for their own good, but the effect had a startling intensity.

Stephen Hough pianistSpeaking of fast and intense, Tchaikovsky’s overly flogged warhorse headed out of the gate with a refreshing vigor and absence of sentimentality. Hough (left), the widely admired British pianist, tore into the concerto in a way that may well have horrified some listeners. I think he even managed to outdo speed demon Martha Argerich when it came to octave whirlwinds.

Well, I’ve always been of the (probably unsound) mind that nothing can be played too fast — or too slow. But what typically happens when pianists want to rip up this work is that they go for both extremes in one sitting, constantly pulling the tempo every which way to apply an interpretive stamp. Hough would never stoop to that sort of thing. What he did was simply take the concerto out of its mushy romantic nest and treat it like a great work that combines bravura with un-sticky lyricism. The proportions were always sensible, and that made all the difference.

Hough left some notes in the dust, but the electricity he produced as he charged ahead had an almost giddy effect — I’m sure I wasn’t the only one smiling in the hall. For the most part, Petrenko and the orchestra got tightly into the soloist’s brisk groove. This kind of music-making — unpredictable, risky, fearless — is as rare as it is exciting. It’s what keeps us coming back to concert halls, even to such familiar repertoire as the Tchaikovsky concerto.

The chance to savor unfamiliar repertoire is another enticement, of course, and that came in Lyadov’s 1909 Kikimora, an evocation of a Russian fairy tale about an evil spirit. It’s a colorful little work, with traces of Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Petrenko had it flowing with lots of character.

Although there was plenty of fine playing from the orchestra (Jane Marvine’s English horn solos in the Lyadov and Shostakovich works were particularly sensitive), Thursday wasn’t necessarily the ensemble’s best night, technically speaking. There were occasional lapses of articulation, some loss of string tone (in the Tchaikovsky concerto), fuzzy patches in the woodwinds and brass. But this was one of those occasions when the feeling was so right, the commitment so strong that the details mattered less than the big, involving picture.

If we're lucky, BSO management will sign up Petrenko -- and Hough -- for return engagements before they leave town.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:30 PM | | Comments (1)


An inspiring review! I have not bought a ticket yet for tonight's (Saturday's) performance, but for better or worse there are usually still quite a few good seats available when I buy at the box office. (I hope I'm not wrong this time.)

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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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