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May 5, 2009

Mario Venzago leads Baltimore Symphony to peak with Bruckner; Nelson Freire delivers superb Beethoven

A very impressive ride the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has been having this season.

The playing, even with the occasional technical slip, seems to have hit a new level of consistency, while the expressive intensity and sense of total commitment has begun to rival that from the pinnacles of the brief Temirkanov era. The recent performance of Mahler's Ninth led by music director Marin Alsop is a case in point; last weekend's account of Bruckner's Third with Mario Venzago, returning to the BSO podium after a too-long absence, is another (I caught Sunday afternoon's performance at the Meyerhoff).

That this particular program also brought back superb keyboard artist Nelson Freire made the occasion all the more memorable. Freire moved with unassuming authority through Beethoven's Concerto No. 4, articulating with great clarity and abundant force as required, but it was his sublime nuances of tone and tempo that tinted the familiar music with a fresh beauty. Venzago and the orchestra backed the soloist attentively.

The audience recalled Freire to the stage enthusiastically enough to earn an encore, the bittersweet gem known as ...

the Melody by Gluck, a transcription of Dance of the Blessed Spirits from the opera Orfeo (I believe Freire played the Sgambati transcription). This used to be a favorite of venerable pianists from long ago, and Freire is just the kind of musician who can tap into the Old World style of singing phrases and subtle coloring that can make the piece so transfixing. (In case you missed it, or want to relive it, I've appended a YouTube video of Freire playing it, also as an encore after a concerto, two years ago. Bad sound quality, but a decent souvenir just the same.)

It was deeply satisfying to hear the BSO turn to Bruckner again; his symphonies could be played here often enough for me (you already suspected I was a little weird -- now you know for sure). Venzago chose the 1890 revision of the score, a major change from Bruckner's 1874 original. Bruckner fans debate the worthiness of each edition of a symphony; I was just happy to have his music in any form.

Venzago revealed a mastery of the Third's architecture, giving each building block, each striking spire, each quiet alcove its due. The charming side of the Third, with its lilting landler and polka references, particularly inspired the conductor, who could not resist dancing along at those moments.

The orchestra responded with terrific flair. There was great warmth from the strings, lots of color and suppleness in the woodwinds, considerable strength and brilliance from the brass, rock solid underlining from timpanist Dennis Kain. In short, a gripping performance.

By the way, I'm still even crazier about Mahler, and I would certainly love for the BSO to tackle all nine Mahler symphonies in a short span, the way the Staatskapelle Berlin is doing at Carnegie Hall, starting Wednesday and going through May 17, with Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim sharing the conducting. I think this would be a fab project for the BSO to tackle in 2011, the 100th anniversary of Mahler's death. That said, I'd be just as excited if the orchestra were to go completely nutty and have a Bruckner festival that gave us all that composer's symphonies -- maybe even more than one of the versions for the most heavily revised works. If such a dream were realized, I'd want Venzago to participate. He seems to get not just the technical side of Bruckner, but the heart and soul.

Now, here's that clip of Freire:


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:39 AM | | Comments (3)


Peak indeed! This was one of the most satisfying BSO concerts I've attended. And they aren't doing _any_ Bruckner next season -- this is an absolute travesty, after having played the 3rd so marvellously on Sunday! (Mario & Co. really deserved a fourth round of applause...)

Indeed, I was so enraptured by the Bruckner -- the precision in the tricky rhythmic detail, the wonderful interplay, the _perfect_ tempi! -- that I was almost brought to tears by it at several points in the adagio and finale. The BSO played (and Mario led) this piece with love and affection. I still missed the Wagner quotations in the adagio (had to listen to them when I arrived home!), because they really underpin the structure and make it flow better, but I was not disappointed at all. (In fact, the high points of that movement could not have sounded any more sublime. And the scherzo so perfectly forecast that of Bruckner's 9th symphony!)

I was most impressed with the finale, which sounded every bit as important and weighty in this performance as one would expect from the finales to Bruckner's 5th and 8th symphonies. Unlike those capstones, the 3rd's finale is so full of sunshine and joy (constrasted with a sort of demonic grandeur in the rushing strings and massed brass, as well as the more solemn turns), one can only wonder where Bruckner may have taken his music had the 3rd's premiere not been such an utter disaster.

(As for the dancing, Blomstedt did the same thing in Philly -- this is a sure sign of a conductor who "gets" this music! ;^)

The Beethoven concerto was a wonder as well, and I especially liked the finale (brisk, but not crazy, speed!). Freire made an amazing case for understatement in this work (while never "mumbling"), only calling upon full throttle at two or three key points. He certainly can command a powerful sound, but his choice to play with (if not _through_) the orchestra really gave one a sense of ensemble unity -- really a fresh thing for Beethoven performance in these younger works!

Hey, any more informative and incisive posts like this and they may offer you my job. Watch it.TIM

Dear Mr. Smith,
I loved your account of the play at Center Stage, and I am so happy that you are still employed with the SUN!

Did you write a review of the Mahler (which my wife and I thought was wonderful). Yes, we too want to hear more Mahler. I am perked because I think that Alsop feels jazz. By the way, I think that movements 1&2 of Mahler4 have lots of jazz.

Thanks for writing. I'm happy, too, that I'm still employed. If you're referring to the Mahler 9 led by Alsop last month, here's a link that review:


Thanks for the lovely clip of Melody by Gluck, performed by Nelson Freire. It was just what I needed at this point in another frustrating day!

My pleasure.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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