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May 27, 2009

Dresden Music Festival hits peak with Vienna Philharmonic and Valery Gergiev

The Vienna Philharmonic returned to Dresden after an absence of 15 or so years Tuesday night, which was reason enough for a crowd to pack the highest rafters -- and I'm talking Alpine height here -- at the Frauenkirche.

This is the Church of Our Lady, erected on a kind of ground zero, at the site where the original 1743 church, considered the most important Protestant house of worship in Germany, collapsed after the fire-bombing of Dresden in Feb. 1945. The rubble remained for decades, a reminder of war's terrible cost, but a recreation of the Frauenkirche now stands proudly and nobly, built with donations from around the world. It's a moving testimony to ...

the city's rebirth, a place that makes quite a statement visually and emotionally. The sheer scope of the place is awesome, inside and out, with a particularly imposing burst of sculpture above the altar, as ornate and eventful as any to be found in a baroque Catholic church.

The richly reverberant acoustics -- at least four seconds, by my unscientific measure -- might be a trap for some, but Valery Gergiev, the brilliant and unpredictable Russian conductor, knew exactly how to make that acoustical property work for the Vienna ensemble. The result was a luxurious sonic bath that still managed to reveal many inner details of orchestration in Sibelius' brooding First Symphony and the complete Firebird of Stravinsky.

I heard things in this concert that I have rarely heard before in live performance, from the rapt, darkly beautiful clarinet solo at the start of the Sibelius to the wealth of subtle nuances and, finally, the visceral release of power in the Stravinsky score.

It's rare that critics are of one mind, but the superlatives were flowing freely from the gang of 11 (seven Americans, two Canadians and two Frenchmen) that has gathered here for a several days of festival-going and discussion. The consensus was that Gergiev and his Viennese musicians made the whole trip worthwhile, from the sheer technical brilliance on display to the emotional commitment behind it.

You don't hear performances like this every day. And having such an experience -- complete on this occasion with lightning flashes from a stormy sky adding some extra drama through the windows just below the huge domed ceiling -- makes you remember why you love music in the first place.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:55 AM | | Comments (1)


Gergiev is a genius; on his worst days, the music he pulls out of an orchestra can be merely efficient and effective, but when he's on fire, watch out!!! "The Firebird" is one of his signature pieces, and with an instrument like the Wieners, he was sure to make a great statement. The Sibelius ought to have been quite a bonus, especially in that boomy cathedral -- all sorts of Tchaikovskian pathos given free reign!

Are you sure you weren't there, too? Perfect description of both items. 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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