Baltimore Symphony puts vigorous spin on classics with Nicholas McGegan, Robert Levin
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
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.
PHOTOS OF NICHOLAS McGEGAN (by Randy Beach) AND ROBERT LEVIN (by Herb Asherman) COURTESY OF BSO