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February 13, 2010

Pictures at the symphony: BSO performs works by Mussorgsky, Hindemith and Brubeck

It was possible Friday night to believe that there is life in post-blizzard Baltimore. There'd surely be even more action if the city could somehow manage to push just a little more snow off the roads, so we could get just a few more lanes of traffic operational, but I know I'm being much too demanding, not to mention unrealistic.

Anyway, the cool thing was finding such a big crowd at the Meyerhoff to hear a hefty program of visual art-inspired works performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

This was the first time the BSO had been back in business since last weekend's storm, which knocked out all performances of a Tchaikovsky-Vaughan Williams-Gershwin program, and the subsequent punch from the skies, which forced the cancelation of Thursday's scheduled concert at Strathmore.

As I understand it, the orchestra wasn't able to get in all of the rehearsals for this latest program, and that showed a little on Friday night, but there was no mistaking the sound of musicians eager to be

back in the thick of it. Marin Alsop was clearly relishing the return to normality, too; in remarks to the audience about the music, she inserted several references to being cooped up for the week.

The conductor's cohesive theme for the program was how composers can be inspired by the art they see. The one, obvious war horse, Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," was balanced by two rarer items: Hindemith's Symphony "Mathis der Maler," drawn from his opera on the Reformation-era painter Matthias Grunewald; and "Ansel Adams: America," jointly composed by Dave Brubeck and his son Chris, and receiving its East Coast premiere.

The presence of the Brubeck name on the bill no doubt generated some of the turnout (Chris Brubeck attended), but it did not generate the most memorable results. Played while several Ansel Adams photographs were projected (weakly) on a screen above the stage, the work opened with a promising, atmospheric brass chorale, then settled into film score routines of rather nondescript, but richly orchestrated, tunes. Long stretches were stuck in a waltz tempo, not the first rhythmic motion I would readily associate with Adams' rugged landscapes.

In the end, it was all very pleasant, and all very ably, sensitively performed. But it didn't begin to match the startling images on the screen; Adams conveyed more meaningful color with his black and white pictures than all the instrumental flourishes employed by the Brubecks.

Hindemith's symphony, relating to three religious paintings by Grunewald but easy to appreciate in abstract terms, is an involving masterwork that speaks vividly, even if the melodic and harmonic language is more intellectual than emotional. It ought to be heard much more often -- same for a lot of Hindemith's music. It was great of Alsop to give it attention, and seemed to be strongly connected to the material throughout, focusing on structural and expressive detail with equal power. 

The players, once past a tentative start, dug into the surging poetic imagery in the first movement and, especially, the battle of taut thematic ideas in the finale. The reflective middle movement found the strings summoning a gorgeous tone and phrasing with admirable subtlety.

The Mussorgsky crowd-pleaser, performed here in the familiar Ravel orchestration, received a vibrant, genuinely evocative account. Alsop kept the momentum going, emphasized dynamic contrasts and bursts of character, and lit an impressive fuse under the brass in "Great Gate at Kiev." The several soloists, among them trumpeter Andrew Balio with his laser-beam articulation and saxophonist Brian Sacawa with his mellow phrasing, made valuable contributions along the way.

Saturday morning's "casual concert" includes the Brubeck and Hindemith works; Saturday evening's "off the cuff" program concentrates on the Mussorgsky. Either ought to be worth dodging snow drifts for.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:04 AM | | Comments (2)


"Long stretches were stuck in a waltz tempo, not the first rhythmic motion I would readily associate with Adams' rugged landscapes."

Nor, I might add, with Dave Brubeck!

I'm with Visit Baltimore, and we just filmed a video with Marin Alsop from the BSO. In the video she tells us about her love for Baltimore and her hopes for the orchestra. Check it out at

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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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