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September 13, 2009

Baltimore Symphony gala showcases Lang Lang and local talent

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's annual gala Saturday night was about as feel-good an occasion as you could hope for during rough financial times for the institution. One of the biggest ovations of the night came before any music was played, when board chairman Michael Bronfein mentioned Music Matters, the musicians' voluntary gesture aimed at helping the bottom line -- they gave back $1 million in pay and benefits last spring, and another $1 million this summer. The tuxedo-speckled audience stood and cheered the players heartily.

There was positive news about the challenge part of Music Matters -- the musicians' plea to the community to match their gift with new or increased contributions. A recent $250,000 donation just brought to $1 million the total raised so far by this campaign.

In other financial news, Bronfein announced that $800,000 was raised by the gala in support of the orchestra's educational efforts. A recent addition to that activity, OrchKids, a kind of American version of Venezuela's famed El sistema program, was launched last year with $100,000 in seed money from BSO music director Marin Alsop. An encouraging report on OrchKids was provided in an effective video that showed West Baltimore school kids embracing the program, which clearly has enormous potential.

Speaking of potential, a promising senior from the Baltimore School for the Arts,

soprano Arielle Armstrong, got a spot on the gala concert. She reflected strongly on her school's value with a poised, vibrant delivery of "Summertime" from Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," sensitively backed by the orchestra.

Alsop, who has championed the work of African-American composer James P. Johnson in previous galas, led a snappy account of his symphonic poem "Drums," preceded by a performance by the vividly costumed African Heritage Dancers and Drummers from D.C. Their appearance on this particular program bill didn't quite make a smooth fit. For that matter, neither did a video piece at the start of the evening, which featured Alsop discussing her mentor Leonard Bernstein and 1980s shots of her being coached by him in a conducting session. That video would have made more sense at last season's gala, which kicked off a season that had a recurring Bernstein theme. Oh well, mine is not to reason why.

Alsop led the ensemble in straight-ahead performances of Bernstein's "Candide" Overture and an abbreviated version of Gershwin's "An American in Paris" before reaching the big-ticket item on the program, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, featuring the enormously popular Lang Lang.

Anyone who came into Meyerhoff Symphony Hall already an admirer of the pianist no doubt left in the same condition. Those arriving with a skeptical or dismissive attitude would have found reinforcement, too. It was certainly an exciting event, in much the same way that watching Michael Phelps set a new world record can be. Come to think of it, this was very much an athletic feat, for Lang Lang seemed determined to play the concerto's fast bits faster than any other human. The flurries of octaves, in particular, were astonishing in terms of velocity. I only wish they had made more musical sense. If Tchaikovsky had envisioned a wild, thunderous blur, I rather suspect he wouldn't have bothered writing out all those little notes.

That said, this open-hearted concerto is pretty much indestructible, and Lang Lang is hardly the first soloist primarily intent on making it a bravura display vehicle, or exaggerating tempos (slow and fast alike). And there were times, to be sure, when he phrased beautifully, warmly, elegantly. Not often enough, alas, to persuade me that deeply inspired music-making was taking place at the keyboard. Fabulous facility and daring, yes. That, especially on a gala occasion, was probably enough.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:03 PM | | Comments (3)


When Lang Lang calms down, I'm sure he'll have a lot to say (if he doesn't burn himself out completely with the histrionics) -- life has a lot more than "rock 'n roll" piano in store for him! ;^)

Like a lot of bangers, he's just "sowing his oats" -- this is surely just a phase, and it's reinforced by his popularity. People want to see the circus act, and he delivers. For now, I can (and will) definitely wait until the "good stuff" emerges!

(This reminds me of a piano player I recently saw on "America's Got Talent": in order to please the judges, one must jump around like a monkey, without making monkey noises.)

I can think of a certain "Ferenc" who followed a similar path...

I have heard Lang Lang only in recitals. I was greatly impressed with his performance Sat., Sept. 12, 2009. I think he has matured, and I love his expression and not sitting there like a "bump on a long." I thought he has calmed down a lot.

It's great to see someone with such depth of feeling.

Rita Lehr - a newcomer to Baltimore

Welcome to Charm City, and thanks for the comments. Lang Lang was born expressive, I think, and his playing is almost guaranteed to be full of feeling. What bothers some is that the music can be overwhelmed by all of that emoting -- and the virtuosic display. I certainly enjoy the individuality of his work, and this particular performance was as individualistic as they come. TIM

Ms. Arielle Armstrong is an amazing young talent.
The feature of this budding opera singer was impressive. This purpose of the arts is to preserve our culture and the youth with be the vehicle for this transfer across generations. If our talent and skills die with us, we have not created a lasting contribution to mankind.

I was over at the School for the Arts the other day to interview her and observe one of her lessons. I left just as impressed as I was at the BSO event with her considerable artistic potential and the obvious joy she takes in music-making. Stay tuned for a story about her later on in the Sun. And thanks for commenting. 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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