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February 28, 2009

Baltimore Symphony's passionate program with Oundjian, Mueller-Schott

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra moved into deeply personal territory last night, playing a program that might be considered the musical equivalent of a bare-all TV chat show, a few tears included.

Inside Elgar's Enigma Variations are affectionate portraits of his wife and friends (possibly including a mistress), as well as himself; within those portraits other revelations and secrets lurk. Dvorak's Cello Concerto goes well beyond the expected virtuoso showpiece to present something so intimate and affecting that it seems as if the composer's on an analyst's couch, letting everything out. And the Four Sea Interludes from Britten's stunning opera Peter Grimes takes us deep into the title character's troubled world, with its mystery and fear.

Guiding the way through all this heady and soulful stuff at the Meyerhoff was Peter Oundjian, music director of the Toronto Symphony. He got to the heart of the matter with admirable results, carefully drawing out the subtle coloring of the Dawn and Moonlight movements Britten pieces and letting the Storm really rip. That was some of the most visceral BSO playing of the season. Earlier, the ensemble encountered an occasional smudge, but it was evident that this was going to be a night of strongly communicative feeling onstage.

Things were really cooking in the Elgar, which Oundjian lavished expressive nuance on, yielding one freshly affecting passage after another. It was a remarkably persuasive interpretation, one that didn't go overboard emotionally (not that I would necessarily mind if he had -- I'm one of a handful of people who thrills, rather than vomits, to the excesses Bernstein allowed in his infamous BBC Symphony recording of the piece). But Oundjian didn't err on the side of cool British reserve, either. The performance was alive and engrossing from the get-go. And the orchestra, again with just the smallest of exceptions, played mightily.

What I especially liked was the way the music-making clearly revealed that there is a whole world of intent beneath the surface of the brilliantly crafted score. (If you want to explore more of that world, Oundjian leads an "Off the Cuff" program tonight at the Meyerhoff that will include a more detailed analysis of the Enigma Variations in advance of a complete performance.)

The Dvorak concerto introduced Daniel Mueller-Schott, a young cellist who revealed considerable technical fluency and a flair for poetic phrasing, achieving magical results in the Adagio. The soloist's gorgeous playing here was matched by admirable sensitivity from the BSO. Mueller-Schott seemed a bit underpowered in the finale, but still full of lyrical force, and when he reached the cello's haunting interlude of reflection just before the emphatic close of the concerto, he again achieved a truly touching quality. The conductor's attentive and incisive contributions proved no less noteworthy.



Posted by Tim Smith at 10:16 AM | | Comments (0)

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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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