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April 24, 2009

Baltimore Symphony gets boost from conductor James Gaffigan, pianist Christopher O'Riley

This week's BSO program marks the end of the road for the Symphony With a Twist series, a project aimed at cultivating -- what else? -- a younger audience with eclectic rep and martini bars. (Count on the bars remaining.) The series will be replaced with the Off the Cuff format introduced this season by Marin Alsop, discussion and performance packaged in 90 minutes or less.

In a quirk of programming, Thursday night's presentation at Meyerhoff wasn't officially a Twist event, despite the program book's designation as such, so there wasn't informal chit-chat from the stage (a Twist tradition), and the audience didn't get the extended section of Radiohead arrangements by guest pianist Christopher O'Riley (left) that folks will hear tonight at Strathmore and Saturday back at Meyerhoff.

Still, the evening had twist enough for me. We even we got one invigorating dash of Radiohead as an encore from O'Riley, who first delivered a striking account of Ravel's Concerto for Left Hand. To tell the truth, I had forgotten what a brilliantly crafted score this concerto is, since it has been a long time since I heard anyone bring to it so much muscle and nuance. The piece is really a drama-rich tone poem, starting with one of those sunrise-type crescendos that Ravel could produce so prismatically, this one seeming to start in some dark cave, where light hasn't penetrated for ages. Wonderful episodes of ...

alternately energetic and lyrical activity follow, some of them charged with infectious dance rhythms (at one point, Bolero-like splashes of orchestral color erupt). Through it all, the piano weaves its own vivid story, challenging the orchestra at times, cajoling it at others.

O'Riley made the keyboard part sound natural and involving, while single-handedly mastering its technical challenges with remarkable ease. In his BSO debut, James Gaffigan (right), a conductor who has been creating a good deal of buzz, gave the pianist tight support and drew from the orchestra lots of stylish, powerful playing.

For his encores, O'Riley started with Debussy's Feux d'artifice, playing it with disarming bravura, and then offered his compelling version of the propulsive, rhythmically edgy Radiohead song "You."

The rest of the concert found Gaffigan and the BSO making vivid music together. Excerpts from Mozart's Idomeneo got a vigorous workout. Three Dance Episodes from Bernstein's On the Town emerged with plenty of snap and, in "Lonely Town," smoky beauty.

Particularly impressive results were achieved in selections from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. Although Gaffigan could have provided more rhythmic spaciousness in a few places, his taut grip on the music paid great dividends, and the orchestra served up impressive playing that caught the sonic richness of what remains one of Prokofiev's most inventive and emotionally powerful creations.

On a purely personal note, I hope I never again have the misfortune to sit near the ladies who were occupying V 101 and 102 Thursday night. I knew I was in trouble when, just as the house lights were lowered before the start of the concert, I overheard one of them say: "So what are we hearing tonight, anyway?" As often as they flipped noisily through the program book, chatting all the while, I suspect they never did find out.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF BALTIMORE SYMPHONY (Christoher O'Riley/Justin Brew, photographer; James Gaffigam/Terry McCarthy photographer)

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:52 PM | | Comments (2)


I, too, really was impressed with the Ravel concerto. It was a very smooth and solid mix of piano solo and orchestral flair. I thought the orchestra and soloist complemented each other very well. I was a bit unimpressed with the "On the Town" selections. But the orchestra definitely came back with the R&J selections. I think Mr Gaffigan is a wonderful and animated conductor and would like to see more of him at the BSO in the future.

Thanks for offering your views on the concert. I agree that the conductor would be well worth having here again.

Last night's concert at the Myerhoff was one of my favorite of the year. I thought that the orchestra nailed the opening Mozart. The Ravel has been a favorite pece of mine since I first saw it with the Cleveland Orchestra in the early 80's. Mr. O'Riley brought the all the energy that the piece needs. The Radiohead encore was great, though the audience's reaction was pretty mixed. The Bernstein was enjoyable, if a little dated and ending on the Prokofiev was a definite high point. The orchestra and Mr. Gaffigan totally committed to the piece. I feel a little guilty that I'm raving about a concert without Ms. Alsop, but it was a totally enjoyable night for me.

Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm.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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