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February 26, 2010

Baltimore Symphony puts vigorous spin on classics with Nicholas McGegan, Robert Levin

Just as the messy weather keeps holding on, the pitch of C has maintained quite a grip on the Baltimore Symphony. Last week, there was all that C minor and major in the program that featured Itzhak Perlman (I gather some folks were none too pleased that he conducted way more than he played the violin). This week, there's a C major feast -- the home keys of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1, with a touch of D major spice at the start, from the Overture to Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro." Not that anyone gives a hoot about harmonic variety in programming -- I just thought I'd mention it.

The really notable thing about this latest program is the way it is delivered, with a substantive dose of the exuberance associated with the historical authenticity movement. Nicholas McGegan, who directs the period instrument Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in San Francisco, is on the podium. When he works with modern instrument ensembles, he doesn't insist on trying to turn them into imitations of the period type (the BSO strings didn't drop vibrato), but concentrates on rhythmic nimbleness and transparency of texture.

He got generally effective results Thursday night at the Meyerhoff, leading a reduced complement of players who seemed energized by the experience. The Mozart symphony benefited from a combination of crisp attacks and warm phrasing; the music danced and, in the minuet, even swaggered. I liked that. There was plenty of speed and lightness in the "Figaro" Overture, if not much in the way of distinctive nuance.

For the Beethoven concerto, the spotlight focused squarely on Robert Levin, a pianist particularly noted for his Mozart scholarship and a penchant for improvising in the manner of 18th- and early 19th-century instrumentalists. Much of Levin's playing sounded rather

brittle and pushy to my ears, but his energetic attacks in the outer movements certainly had their visceral appeal. His spontaneous cadenzas exuded fire, even some brimstone. A few not-quite-aligned moments aside, coordination between soloist and orchestra was supple. McGegan drew from the woodwind section especially glowing work.

Next week, the BSO launches a month of circus-themed concerts. The cynically inclined might think of Levin's solo spot on this program as a bit circus-y, too, but that would only be because we're no longer accustomed to musicians doing tricks, the way that young Beethoven (and even younger) Mozart routinely did, as a way of demonstrating their competitive edge and feeding public demand. Having this sort of pure entertainment feature on an otherwise normal orchestral program probably annoys some folks (they're usually the same ones who also complain that orchestras don't do enough stuff that's really different), but Thursday's crowd seemed to enjoy it thoroughly.   

With the stage to himself, Levin drew from a basket little slips of musical themes submitted by audience members during intermission. The first one happened to be "Happy Birthday," even though he had specifically asked that people submit themes in the style of Beethoven (this wasn't a Gabriela Montero concert, after all).

Luckily, an audience voice-vote nixed "Happy Birthday," and Levin proceeded to pull more appropriate items, including a phrase from a Beethoven string quartet and a couple of apparently original ideas. He then proceeded to improvise a fantasy on said themes -- with a home key of C major, by the way -- as Beethoven might have done, complete with insistent motives, rhythmic drive, explosive chords, bursts of contrapuntal cleverness, and more. 

The program repeats Friday at Meyerhoff, Saturday at Strathmore. Levin will do his improvised thing both nights, but each fantasy will, of course, be different. If you've got a Beethoven-like tune running around in your head, here's your chance to have it Levin-ized.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:35 AM | | Comments (2)


I enjoyed reading your review of this, both where our impressions converged and where they diverged. I went on Saturday:

Your review is pretty much spot on.

I was at Friday's concert and I enjoyed McGegan's conducting very much. I'm no musicologist, but the conducting seemed downright inspired. Levin was entertaining and charming, but yes, a bit brittle in parts.

I had orchestra Row D seats ... never been so close. You could hear the bow biting into the strings. Acoustics there aren't the best, but it was a whole new perspective on the symphony experience.

Hey, only "pretty much"? Still, thanks for sharing your perspective. 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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