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May 10, 2010

Weekend in review (Part 1): Jonathan Carney leads Baltimore Symphony

Concertmasters can make a world of difference to an orchestra. If you're lucky, and the Baltimore Symphony is exceedingly fortunate in this regard, you get a lot more than an excellent fiddler. You get someone whose musicianship lifts the entire string section, and even the whole ensemble. You also get someone who can step confidently up to the plate -- for solo roles in concertos and even as conductor.

I don't hear a lot about concertmasters conducting their orchestras these days, but it was once relatively common. If I recall correctly (I'm too lazy to look it up right now), it was the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic who filled in initially when Mahler, fatally ill, had to leave the conductor post in 1911.

Anyway, back to the BSO. In Jonathan Carney, this orchestra gained a remarkably well-rounded and capable artist nine years ago. He is regularly featured as soloist in concertos and, increasingly, as conductor. The latest occasion came over the weekend.

On Friday night at the Meyerhoff, it was interesting to see a lot of risers back onstage (they have been mostly absent during music director Marin Alsop’s tenure), with the players forming a tight semi-circle. Carney, sitting on a slightly raised platform in his usual concertmaster location, played and conducted a sensitive, cohesive performance of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony at the start of the evening. Carney’s attention to dynamic contrasts and the shape of phrases paid handsome dividends. Woodwind soloists in the orchestra did particularly shining work.

The “Duett-Concertino” by Richard Strauss, one of those endearing products of his autumnal years, provided a showcase for two valued BSO veterans – clarinetist Steven Barta and bassoonist Phillip Kolker. The genteel, subtly crafted score, with its ever-flowing melodic lines, worked its magic. The soloists phrased elegantly; Carney ensured smooth support from the ensemble of strings and harp.

Beethoven’s Triple Concerto for violin, cello and piano closed the program. This is not

top-drawer Beethoven to my ears. In the outer movements, the composer drives a couple of so-so tunes into oblivion, making it hard to remember how eloquent the Largo in between can be. But the piece made a favorable impression on me here, thanks to the caliber of the solo contributions and the expressive force of the ensemble.

Carney, in double-duty mode, was joined by two big names from the Peabody Institute – its director, Jeffrey Sharkey; and a member of the faculty, cellist Amit Peled, who enjoys a busy career as soloist. I was especially struck by the richness of Peled’s tone and the intensely poetic nature of his phrasing; this was very classy cello playing. Sharkey offered solid, increasingly colorful work at the keyboard.

Carney sounded a little tentative at the start, but soon produced plenty of his usual silken tone and nicely detailed phrasing. All the while, he kept and a careful eye and ear on the orchestra throughout, shaping a performance of consistency and character.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:03 AM | | Comments (1)


The entire evening there was a chamber music sensibility to Jonathan's direction as well as the orchestra and soloists playing which I like very much.

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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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