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April 16, 2010

Juanjo Mena leads Baltimore Symphony in colorful, off-the-beaten-path program

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has been especially fortunate in its podium guests lately.

People are still talking about Hannu Lintu's sensational BSO debut last week, when the Finnish conductor led incendiary accounts of familiar works by Beethoven and Sibelius. This week marks the return of Juanjo Mena, one of the orchestra's favorite and most frequent collaborators since his first appearance here in 2004, and this reunion is producing memorable results, too.

The program -- three 20th century works that take distinctly different lyrical paths -- is noteworthy in itself, since none of the music is over-exposed in concert halls. On Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore (the program repeats this weekend at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall), Mena lavished care on each item, from the gentlest whisper in Ottorino Respighi's "Ancient Airs and Dances" to the most aggressive thrusts in Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 4.

The 1916 Nielsen score, which the Danish composer called "The Inextinguishable," is a knockout. The title refers

to the force of life, human and otherwise (including, Nielsen noted, volcanoes -- so the symphony provides the perfect soundtrack to this week's outburst of nature in Iceland). In four seamlessly connected movements, the work is rich in thematic ideas and development, leading inexorably to the tympani-gone-wild finale. Two sets of those instruments, placed on opposite sides of the stage, become protagonists in a battle gradually resolved when the orchestra reaches the grand transformation of a short, descending melody woven throughout the work.

The sense of an eventful journey is palpable in the symphony, and Mena proved to be a masterful guide, maintaining taut control, yet allowing for plenty of breathing room. The BSO responded with playing of considerable vitality, character, impact. The woodwinds sounded particularly inspired.

The first half of the evening was devoted to music of a mostly delicate hue. The strings-only Suite No. 3 of the "Ancient Airs and Dances" reveal the subtlest side of Respighi. This is baroque music seen through an early 1930s gauze of romantic warmth, and Mena coaxed appropriately gorgeous -- but never sentimental -- and admirably cohesive sounds from the ensemble; pianissimo fade-outs were achieved with great sensitivity.

Given the weather we've been having lately, Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de estio (Spring Concerto) seemed a doubly fitting choice for the program. Though not  as well known as his works for guitar and orchestra, this violin showpiece from 1943 is a charmer, propelled in the outer movements by brilliant, dancing flourishes for the soloist, and enriched in the central movement by a noble, elegant theme of timeless lyricism.

The solo role proved a strong fit for BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney, who offered a combination of technical aplomb and refined style, while Mena assured smooth partnering from the orchestra in this understated gem of a concerto.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF BSO (Jonthan Carney photographed by Grant Leighton)

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:45 AM | | Comments (3)


Hi Tim - I reviewed this too. Good stuff!

What a marvelous timpanist Dennis Kain is! - and I say that with all due respect for Christopher Williams, who did a good job too (I attended Thursday's concert as well.) Indeed, Mr. Kain can stand tall alongside my favorite timpanists: Don Liuzzi, Marinus Komst, Roland Altmann, or Peter Sadlo.

It was great to see Mr. Kain taking a bow - timpanists rarely do.

Also, as the resident Enescu maniac, I should point out that there is a marvelous recording of Rodrigo's "Concierto de estio" by Christian Ferras with the Paris Conservatory Concert Society Orchestra conducted by Enescu. Ferras - an Enescu pupil - is at his youthful best, sparkling. But the surprise for me was the vitality of Enescu's conducting: the recording was made in 1952 and Enescu was seriously ill by that time.

Thanks for the recording tip. And for the shout-out to Dennis Kain, who has long been one of my favorite BSO players. TIM

Hello, Tim, I was at the Saturday performance, and was happy to hear works I was familiar with, but that aren't played often. There's really no excuse in the Nielsen, one of the most original 20th C. symphonies. I was very disappointed with the orchestral balances, though. From where I sat (the cheap seats upstairs) the brass just covered everything else, leaving me to wish I could hear more of the excellent BSO playing that was evident when the brass weren't in action. I attended a performance of Mahler 5 in Hagerstown this afternoon (the cheap seats once more), and that was never a problem, despite the heavy brass and horn scoring. As for the interpretation, the first movement sounded rushed at times, but things got better, and the last two movements were fine. Still it couldn't erase my memories of Jean Martinon when he came to Washington with this symphony in the early 70s. He was a true master of it. I was very discouraged to hear from the stage that the BSO players had to concede 17% of their salaries. Surely, that will cause some of the players to look elsewhere, and can't help but degrade the quality of the playing that I feel is consistently better than the NSO, and has been for years.

Thanks for sharing your reactions. 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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