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October 2, 2009

BSO explores folk roots in works by Bartok and Tchaikovsky

Although it’s convenient for some to think of music being divided into totally separate worlds, with the classical variety way over in some isolated corner where only the “elite” indulge in it, there are innumerable connecting, welcoming points between genres. One mission of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s new season is to emphasize such links, programming works that reveal roots planted in folk music or jazz, for example. Last week, bluegrass found its way into the picture via a concerto by Jennifer Higdon featuring a hotshot crossover trio; this week, the folk influences behind familiar pieces by Tchaikovsky and Bartok are being given fresh attention.

On Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore (the program repeats at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Friday-Sunday), the stage was devoid of orchestral players at the start of the concert. Instead, BSO music director Marin Alsop walked out to introduce Harmonia, a crack ensemble devoted to Eastern European folk music.

The five instrumentalists gave a mini-concert that helped focus the ears anew on the piquant scales and vigorous rhythms that Bartok incorporated into his Concerto for Orchestra, which followed. And Harmonia’s dynamic presentation still resonated later, when Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, which has plenty of its own folksy elements, arrived after intermission.

The Bartok score remains a keen test of conductor and orchestra alike. Although there were moments Thursday that could have benefited from a little more urgency, snap and earthiness, the overall effect proved

highly satisfying. Alsop had the music well in hand, bringing out the sarcasm of the fourth movement with particular flair and driving the finale along powerfully. The violins, violas and cellos made an especially impressive showing, though there certainly were deftly shaded contributions from the winds and brass as well.

The Tchaikovsky war horse had the distinct advantage of a young, exceptionally sensitive rider on this occasion. Canadian-born, Grammy-winning violinist James Ehnes revealed a refreshing concentration on the actual music in the concerto -- no show-off tricks or unduly fussy tempos. Everything flowed with a natural elegance and, in the most songful passages, great eloquence. There may have been a measure or two when the clarity of his articulation slipped a bit, but never the expressive force.

Ehnes’ tone had both sweetness and body, easily holding its own against the orchestral forces, which Alsop guided surely. She and the ensemble sounded as fully caught up in this familiar concerto as the soloist, and the result was a remarkably involving performance.

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:45 AM | | Comments (5)


It sounds like you enjoyed the Bartok, at least for the most part. Do you have any thoughts on why the audience response was so lukewarm? It seems to have all the elements of a crowd pleasing piece. Perhaps I'm just so used to seeing our audience jump to their feet that I was surprised at this concert. Do you think the Bartok was too "modern" for this audience's ears?

No telling. Oddly enough, I think Bartok, even at his most accessible, still leaves some people cold. TIM

Several University of Maryland School of Music faculty are performing in a program on Sunday at the Clarice Smith Center exploring the folk-classical relationship, and they are also doing Bartók. Very interesting!

Thanks. TIM,

Is The Sun trying to tell us something by putting your review of this concert in the Obituary section? We got a chuckle out of that at work.

Well, I guess I do write about a lot of de-composers. TIM

Tim, the Meyerhof was half-empty on Friday night. At the conclusion of the Bartok there was a pause as if the piece had put the audience in a funk. After 4-5 seconds there came half-hearted clapping - perhaps just to be polite.
The Concerto for Orchestra was a favorite of Temirkanov and programmed 3-4 times. His interpretation was cooler and
suited the work better - I felt there was something hard to define 'off' in Alsop's interpretation. How do you compare the two interpretations?
Certainly Alsop seemed to over-inflate the final movement bringing the orchestra to an fff sound level and having the brass babble out the theme as if it were a schoolyard taunt.
Not at all the victory that Bartok intended.

First, I can only recall hearing the BSO play the Concerto one before, with Roberto Abdado, so I can't do the comparison test you asked for. While I wasn't blown away by Thursday's performance, it had cohesiveness and tension and power (the only taunting was where I expected it, in the anti-Shostakovich passage). Maybe there was some deflation the next night at Meyerhoff; things have been known to change from night to night. TIM

I did not recall Temirkanov doing the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra and I checked the performance archive. Indeed, there is no listing of a performance conducted by Temirkanov.

Raymond Kreuger
Associate Orchestra Librarian
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Thanks for confirming what I suspected. I couldn't recall such a performance, and could find no review in our (sometimes faulty) archives. But my memory is, as you know, notoriously questionable, so I figured I'd better wait until I knew absolutely. 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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