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February 16, 2010

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with Jansons, Jansen superb in DC visit

Nothing like the sound of an orchestra that is truly world-class (sorry to drag out that overused, often mis-applied word).

Mariss JansonsMonday night at the Kennedy Center, from the first, faint murmurs in the strings at the start of Sibelius' Violin Concerto to the final, massive whomp at the end of Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony and the bright dash through the encore, the Farandole from Bizet's "L'Arlesienne" Suite No. 2, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam produced a compelling array of superbly articulated colors.

That would have been reward enough, but there was such a deep expressive quality behind the impressive technical polish that all the music felt freshly lived. Presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society (how I wish we had the equivalent in Baltimore, where our awfully good hall ought to be a stopping point for visiting orchestras), the concert started at a peak, and just kept rising. You don't get that kind of experience every day.

Concertgebouw admirers place the ensemble right alongside the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics as the world's top three. Folks who attended Monday's performance probably wouldn't put up much of an argument, not after hearing such smoothness of string tone, suppleness in the woodwinds, warmth and power from the brass.

These qualities were being noted when the Concertgebouw was new, 122 years ago, and they have been built upon by a succession of notable music directors. Currently at the helm is Mariss Jansons, whose incisive musicality has made him one of the most admired conductors on the scene today. He was in his element on Monday, going far beyond the printed score into that hard-to-find (and hard-to-define) world where music becomes so much more than its component parts, where the listener can step through a portal of sorts into a new, no less visceral reality.

I've heard some damn good accounts of the

Janine JansenSibelius concerto in concert halls, but I can't remember one quite as electric as what occurred on this occasion, with the sensational Janine Jansen -- a talent homegrown in the Netherlands -- as soloist and Jansons attending to the minutest orchestral detail. It was a vividly atmospheric, often surprising interpretation; this was a three-act drama with an engrossing sweep. Jansen produced a penetrating tone ripe with nuance, and was unafraid to sacrifice purity to make an emphatic point along the way.

The individuality may not have been to every one's taste, but I found the violinist's approach sublime. And I can't imagine a more attentive, supportive response than the one the orchestra provided. Jansons deftly kept the lid on the dynamics -- his musicians were capable of exceptional pianissimi -- so that the first fortissimo from the ensemble had volcanic impact. Come to think of it, the whole performance was like a volcano, starting with a portentous steam and yielding an energy force to be reckoned with.

Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony has its share of ardent detractors, including a certain former music critic of a certain major daily who would skip out at intermission if the piece were on a program, and then still bash it. Call me sentimental (as pianist Till Fellner would -- he finds the composer's music too sentimental to bother with), but I find the brand of lyricism and passion in Rachmaninoff's music irresistible. And this symphony represents his most unabashedly romantic expression, together with some of his most brilliantly constructed melodic and harmonic ideas.

Jansons clearly believes in every note, and he gave every note sensitive attention. Myriad details of tonal shading emerged in the process; the music sounded wonderfully alive with character and import. The orchestra responded to every gesture (even when the conductor kept his hands at his side, and just let the players go on their own). The grand structure of the score emerged tellingly, never tediously, and the surge of feeling in the most eloquent moments of each movement left an indelible mark.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:56 AM | | Comments (2)


Tim, Thanks for your excellent review. Right on the mark. I was there, because, as you say, the Royal Concertgebouw probably isn't coming to Baltimore any time soon. Even from the cheap seats,( which were none too cheap), you could hear it all. No doubt, one of the finest orchestras and conductors in the world--that showed immediately and throughout the concert. A memorable evening, despite the long trip down there in the snow from Catonsville.

Glad to know I wasn't the only Baltimore music fan who braved that wintry ride. Thanks for commenting. TIM


Well said. Well Written.

Two of several high points:

Janine Jansen's expressive commitment to the music and beauty of sound when playing softly.

Mariss Jansons stopped conducting in the Rachmaninoff 3rd movement and just watched, swayed with the music, face glowing while the strings spun and passed around the melody.



Hey, thanks for commenting. I, too, loved the fiddler's soft notes and those moments when the conductor loosened the reins. Magical. 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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