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September 25, 2009

BSO opens subscription concerts with fiery Tchaikovsky and crossover concerto by Higdon

Time for ThreeNearly two weeks ago, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 provided the finale to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s splashy season-opening gala concert. The Tchaikovsky thread has carried over into the BSO’s first subscription series concerts of 2009-2010; one of his greatest hits, Symphony No. 4, closes the program.

Next week’s lineup will end with yet another Tchaikovsky war horse, the Violin Concerto, so we’ve got a clear little trend going on here. (And people complained that former music director Yuri Temirkanov did too much Russian stuff.)

Musically speaking, Tchaikovsky is faring a lot better this week than he did at that gala, when Lang Lang applied too much bling bling to the concerto. On Thursday night, all was serious, sensible and satisfying as Marin Alsop led a forceful account of the fate-challenging Fourth Symphony that found the BSO playing impressively.

Individualistic touches were not exactly rampant, but the conductor’s approach had an invigorating sweep that gave each drama-drenched moment its due, right from the opening notes.

The second movement, graced by Katherine Needleman’s golden oboe solo, was perhaps too squarely phrased, but still conveyed considerable warmth, and the scherzo was very effectively carried off — lots of dynamic nuance, even at a good sprint. The finale really crackled, showing off the fearless strings to fine advantage.

This performance seemed doubly rewarding, given the unevenness earlier. The program, very Alsop in its mix of the standard and the new, is part of, yes, another connective theme running throughout the season — music that reflects cultural roots.

So the taste of Russian folk tunes in the Tchaikovsky symphony had a counterpart in the ethnic flavor of Brahms’ “Hungarian Dances,” which opened the evening. Alsop put a few effective bends in the rhythm in those dances, but more charm would have been nice, and the orchestra sounded in need of some technical tightening.

Next up was the area premiere of

Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto “4-3,” a vehicle composed for a hip, young crossover ensemble called Time for Three. (Last season’s subscription concerts ended with the area premiere of Higdon’s Violin Concerto, so having Higdon back to start this season’s series suggests that connective threads have become, well, a connective thread in BSO programming.)

Higdon writes some of the most instantly likable music to be heard today, always rich in engaging ideas and instrumental coloring. It’s easy to see why she would have been attracted to the idea of creating specifically for the trio of violinists Zach De Pue and Nick Kendall and bassist Ranaan Meyer. While students at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (where Higdon teaches), they discovered a mutual interest in bluegrass, country and jazz and ran with it.

Higdon is just as at home in those styles. Other than fiddler/composer Mark O’Connor, she is surely the best equipped to create a concerto that incorporates them. But Concerto “4-3,” in three movements with descriptive titles referencing Higdon’s Smoky Mountains roots, left me largely unconvinced on Thursday.

The piece gave the soloists perhaps too much of the limelight. Their extended (and rather repetitive) cadenzas were ripe with twangy bluegrass slides that tended to smooth out whenever the orchestra kicked in. And that orchestral side of things didn’t have much substance to it.

The net effect was sort of like seeing a city slicker accenting his Brooks Brothers suit with ostentatious cowboy boots. I had trouble buying it.

That said, the amplified Time for Three guys offered tremendous energy and tightly meshed virtuosity. In passages that called for gradual decrescendos, they also produced expressive power out of the softest wisps of sound. Alsop was, as usual, a secure, attentive partner. The brass executed their snappy licks in the third movement with particular panache.

The trio delivered the fiddler classic “Orange Blossom Special” as an encore and played the heck out of it, earning a hefty, happy roar from the crowd.

The program repeats Friday night at Meyerhoff, Saturday night at Strathmore.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:51 PM | | Comments (3)


I really enjoyed the concert, and the music of "Time for Three," but do you think the 3 young guys were a little "over-emotive" in their playing style? Seemed a little gimmicky to me.

I know what you mean. These guys certainly have a lot of moves. I readily confess that I haven't seen many bluegrass players perform, but the few that I have seemed far more sedate in their approach, even as the music was churning along. Often hard to tell what part of a musician's gestures is real, what part purely for public entertainment. (We just had Lang Lang here, of course, and he incites all sorts of discussion about this.)

More oat-sowing going on, no doubt! As public music has often become as much about physical contortions (and showing skin -- I see kids walking home from school nowadays and just want to scream at them, "Please, put on some _real_ clothes!!!" -- thanks, Britney!) as it is about the music itself, I really try to close my eyes in these instances and just _listen_.

I must interject and say that I saw Zach de Pue in Indy (for that Bruckner 8th) -- he performed JSBach's concerto for 2 violins with Alexander Kerr, and they were a little animated but not ridiculously so (and the musicianship was outstanding).

I _have_ seen a great deal of bluegrass (I _love_ it!), both live and recorded, and the players are often just as controlled and focused as any orchestral player. Bluegrass is a very high form of what I would call "popular" art music, and its technical demands can be daunting (and the results often beautiful). The images of "Deliverance" and good ol' boys playin' away while drunk on moonshine are utter nonsense. ;^)

I have to make a review on that concert for my class. I was wondering if you could give me some pointers?

Just call it like you heard it. That's the main thing. Structurally, there is a reporter part to a review (the who, what, where, when stuff) and the evaluation part -- how it all sounded, how it affected you (if at all), how it served the music at hand. The trick is to combine those elements into something readable, something, ideally, that has a little style as well as content. That's what I strive for, at least. Good luck. TS

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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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