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March 20, 2009

Alsop, Baltimore Symphony continue their Dvorak cycle; Czech pianist makes BSO debut

Eastern Europe dominates this week's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program -- pieces by Czech and Polish composers, and a Czech soloist. The results are energizing.

Dvorak's Symphony No. 7 and Scherzo capriccioso are being recorded at the Meyerhoff for future release as part of a cycle of that composer's works the BSO and music director Marin Alsop have been making for the Naxos label. The engineers have a couple more performances (Friday and Sunday) to choose from in editing the final product -- a good thing considering how many horn flubs popped up Thursday night -- but there still was a lot of hearty music-making that might well make the cut.

If the microphones had been left on during Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1, which separated the Dvorak items, they would have captured an appealing performance of that piece, too. (The mikes, alas, would also have picked up ...


Lukas Vondracekone of the most obnoxious cases of musicus-interruptus-by-cell-phone I've endured yet. The offending device -- located right across the aisle for moi, to make it even more personally punishing -- erupted during the final, hushed measures of the concerto's delicate slow movement.)

Alsop seems to have even more affinity for Dvorak than she does for Brahms, whose symphonies she conducts frequently and has recorded for Naxos with the London Philharmonic. Her approach to Dvorak's Seventh was particularly persuasive. She had this darkly beautiful music flowing with a passionate sweep, giving the outer movements a lot of punch and thrust (not that there couldn't have been even a little bit more), and, in particular, bringing out the Adagio's wistful poetry with admirable warmth. The orchestra responded intensely. The strings summoned a rich tone; the woodwinds had lots of color and nuance; roughness from the horn section gave way to downright majestic playing in that Adagio.

The Scherzo capriccioso sounded less rehearsed, and Alsop didn't do quite as much with the score as she did in the symphony. Still, there certainly were sparkling details, and the way the conductor had the coda dashing along suggested that more spark will emerge throughout the whole performance when the program is repeated throughout the weekend (Saturday's concert will be at Strathmore).

The Chopin concerto introduced the BSO audience to pianist Lukas Vondracek, all of 21, from the Czech Republic. He proved a most welcome visitor, approaching the well-worn piece with a mix of sinew and sensitivity. Occasionally, he articulated a melodic line with his right hand more forcefully than necessary, giving it a metallic edge, but everything Vondracek did sounded carefully, reasonably considered, not to mention technically polished.

Above all, there was a spontaneous quality to his pianism that gave delicate filigree passages an air of improvisation, for example, and put an extra kick into the folk rhythms of the finale. His shaping of the Romanze was especially refined and communicative; I loved the way he lovingly, introspectively approached the solo passage of gently rocking harmonic modulation just before the last portion of the movement.

Alsop was an attentive colleague on the podium, drawing beautifully shaded playing from the BSO.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:31 PM | | Comments (4)


Your comments about the horns are interesting. Since you were so aware of the horns, I'm surprised you didn't make mention of the second horn player who was brought in from across the country--- Marin Alsop's partner. In a time of such difficulty for the arts, surely there is a local horn player who would have done a better job. Nepotism isn't pretty, especially when the results are so profoundly bad.


I did happen to notice Ms. Alsop's partner onstage; she has subbed before with the BSO and is held in high regard by the principal horn player. For what it's worth, I heard her play superbly at the Cabrillo Festival a couple years ago. Given that I could only see a couple of the section players from my seat, I wouldn't presume to single out anyone for flubs. Besides, I've known the section to have off nights when this player was far away in Denver.TS


I still can't get used to having to go online for your reviews -- my wife and I have subscribed to the Sun and the BSO for most of the last 30 years, and old habits die hard.

There is much less horn trouble in the BSO than there used to be. There were a few flubs Friday night as well, but it was a blissfully cell-phone free night.

The online thing is something I have a littIe trouble adjusting to myself. (I should point out that an abbreviated version of this particular review made it into print on Saturday.) And I agree with you about the horns -- much improved since I first heard the orchestra 9 years ago. I'm glad you didn't get the destructive cell phone on Friday.TIM


Your comment, "Occasionally, he articulated a melodic line with his right hand more forcefully than necessary, giving it a metallic edge..." was more because of the "brightness" of the Steinway than Vondracek's reading or technique, in my opinion. That wasn't the case with the Steinway at Strathmore on Saturday night!

There certainly can be major differences between pianos, but a soloist would, I think, adjust his playing accordingly, at least after a movement or two into a concerto. I still think, like many pianists I hear, that Vondracek applied a heavy touch for some passages that would have 'sung' more beautifully had he gone for a lighter approach. And the fact that he did, indeed, play many phrases on Thursday with exquisite lightness suggests that he meant things to sound the way they did. But I certainly enjoyed the performance a lot. This guy has something, and, considering his tender age, he'll likely have much more to offer us in the future.TIM

The Naxos release of Alsop and the BSO performing the Dvorak 7th and 8th (the 7th recorded at this series of concerts) is out - at least in the UK - and is superb. I could not detect the roughness in the horns you mentioned (though the recording is taken from multiple performances, which probably explains that). The orchestra has never sounded better. Though not as magnificent as the "New World" released earlier (which I though the best recording I had heard since Giulini/Philharmonia), it is a worthy competitor to any recording from the last twenty years - marred only by the slight lack of momentum in the 1st and 4th movements of the 7th, which you seemed to obliquely imply in your review.

Thanks for the review. For what it's worth, I'll have something to say about the CD soon. 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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