Baltimore Symphony's classy concert with Mena, Lortie; and a programming suggestion
I've said before, and I'll say again, that there's still plenty of justification for programming the well-worked standards of the classical music repertoire -- as long as the performances are truly alive and communicate something fresh and involving. Case in point: Thursday night's Baltimore Symphony concert with guest conductor Juanjo Mena and pianist Louis Lortie at Meyerhoff Hall.
On paper, it looked like just a routine greatest hits night -- Strauss' "Don Juan," Schumann's Piano Concerto, Brahms' Third. It turned out to be quite invigorating. Mena's ability to summon expressive performances is well established here, and he had the Strauss score soaring nicely at the top of the evening. His Brahms, too, had considerable character, especially in the most introspective moments; the poetic nature of the inner movements emerged most beguilingly. The orchestra purred nicely, for the most part, in both pieces with particularly distinguished contributions from the woodwinds and strings. It sounded as is all the musicians onstage really wanted to be there, really wanted to make something out of the music. That's what it's all about, isn't iy?
Lortie sure seemed to have a ball with the Schumann war horse. So did I. It's been a while since I've heard
the martial bits in the score sound so jaunty, the lyricism of the middle movement flow so tenderly. This was playing of infectious energy and effortless elegance, and Mena partnered it smoothly. The BSO again sounded quite cohesive and vibrant.
(The pianist couldn't resist a bit of fun when, during the pause before the Intermezzo, a musically over-active cell phone went off. While everyone waited -- and waited and waited -- for the owner to silence the offender, Lortie began to imitate the odd ring tone at the piano, breaking the house up.)
Listening to this concert reminded me of something that I think today's orchestras ought to consider. Time was when programs were often constructed in the reverse of the order most commonly encountered now -- with the big, meaty item first, not last. Mahler, for one, believed that audiences were at their most alert and receptive when a concert started, so, as a conductor, he was known to put the heavier music first -- including, as I recall, some of his own compositions. After intermission would come shorter, often lighter works.
Thursday's BSO program followed the tired old format: curtain-raiser, concerto, symphony. Given the subtlety of the Brahms Third, his only symphony with a quiet ending, I'd bet the crowd would have enjoyed it more if that had been performed on the first half (certainly the squirming folks near me would have). Then people could have enjoyed the Schumann crowd-rouser as the finale and headed out into the night on that lively note.
I'm not suggesting that this heavy-to-light approach should be used on all occasions, but there sure are a lot of times when you just know folks would be happier with that format, if they less demanding fare to look forward to after the snacks and restroom breaks. (And maybe this would stop people from slipping away at intermission. I see that all the time, including last Thursday.)
Re-arranging the program order every now and then would be an easy, harmless way for orchestras to shake things up a little and get out of old ruts, yet remain totally faithful to their mission. Just a thought.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF BSO