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May 17, 2010

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.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:19 AM | | Comments (4)


I'm glad to hear that Lortie was such an _excellent_ sport about the cell-phone ringing -- I wonder if he's developed a routine of aping ringtones when this occurs! (Let's face it -- almost every audience of which I've been a part recently has had more than a few idiots who don't understand the concept of TURN IT OFF!!!) Regardless, he should surely receive kudos for this witty response!

And the programming order has kinda become "stuck in a rut" -- personally, I'm REALLY sick of this opener-concerto-symphony format. I know that these organizations look on the concertos as the "people pleasers," but as we know, the audience tends to become rather bored and restless with the "remainder." You'd never want to put a concerto after a work like Bruckner's 8th or Mahler's 1st, but -- where appropriate -- let's move the soloist(s)-spotlight to the "dessert" part of the meal, rather than the salad course.

I think this can work even when there aren't concertos. Just as recitalists used to follow sonatas with bonbons (some still do), orchestras could save some popular classics for after intermission. I don't think that would be so sacrilegious. TIM

Thanks for fascinating reviews of the BSO. How about contrasts/comparisons of performance & ambiance between Meyerhoff & Strathmore?

Interesting request. I'll work on it. TIM

Do try to do a comparison at least a couple of times. The halls are and sound quite different, and both Marin and the musicians say (in post performance Q&A) that she and the orchestra make the adjustment and play differently. We would appreciate a comparative analysis, as it is not practicable tor one to attend the same concert at the two venues.

As you point out, it's not easy to attend the same concert at two venues. That goes for me, too. I've only been able to do that once or twice (I have other things to review most weeks), so that's why I haven't done a full report on the comparisons. But I'll try to do something before too long. TIM

Dare I say (?) that the orchestra has not sounded that good since Yuri left town.....

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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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