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June 4, 2010

Baltimore Symphony and the three Bs: Beethoven, Bartok, Barber

There's an old expression in classical music circles, "The Three Bs," standing for the pillars of Western music (well, the Germanic variety, at any rate): Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. One of those guys figures in the latest Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program -- Beethoven -- along with two other significant Bs: Barber and Bartok. This particular alliterative set constitutes a cool trio.

On Thursday night at the Meyerhoff, the Bartok contribution, "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta," proved especially welcome -- the BSO has programmed it only once, 31 years ago. It's a fascinating score from every angle, brilliantly fashioned out of unifying thematic ideas and strengthened by structural integrity (the arch shape of the first and third movements never fails to impress, intellectually and emotionally).

The piece, which is being recorded for the next BSO project with the Naxos label, is finely suited to music director Marin Alsop's skills; she seems to thrive on works that contain complex rhythms and intricate meshing of instrumental forces. There were a few spots on Thursday that could have been tighter and tauter in execution (and a few that were marred by audience noises, despite reminders of the recording going on), but this was an engrossing and impressive performance just the same.

The atmospheric Adagio, a night-scape punctuated by mysterious repeated notes from the xylophone at the beginning and end, emerged compellingly. And, except for a slight deflation of energy in the closing measures, the dancing finale generated great verve. For the most part,  the strings offered impressive precision and color. The percussion section did shining work, as did Lura Johnson at the piano and Michael Sheppard at the celesta.

(By the way, as she often does with music that isn't widely familiar, Alsop gave the audience a little guide to the Bartok score that included excerpts from the piece and examples of some others to illustrate the composer's sound-world and techniques. Alsop invariably makes these demonstrations entertaining. I only wish she would come up with

a better line than "Something like that," which the conductor has a habit of saying after the orchestra finishes playing a snippet during such pre-performance presentations. Maybe it's just me, but that off-hand remark always seems out of place.)

The program opened with one of the most beloved works in the American repertoire, Barber's Adagio for Strings, written around the same time as the Bartok score, but inhabiting an entirely different aesthetic. Bartok had both feet firmly planted in the 20th century; Barber kept a few toes comfortably dug into the 19th.

Alsop drew from the BSO strings a gorgeous sound. I would not have minded a more spacious tempo (you knew I'd say that, didn't you?), but the poignancy of this ultra-lyrical work hit home.

The Beethoven portion of the program, wisely placed last, was devoted to his Piano Concerto No. 5, the "Emperor." Andre Watts, who gave a spectacular account of a Brahms concerto with Alsop and the BSO a couple years ago, was back to deliver another memorable performance. This time, the dynamic range of his tone wasn't quite as wide, but he still produced a good deal of nuance along the way. There was an awful lot of energy, too.

The outer movements found the soloist churning out great power, but also a kind of twinkle-in-the-eye exuberance. He seemed to have so much fun bounding through the music that you couldn't help but be caught up in the high spirits. The Adagio's introspective poetry went unexpressed by the pianist initially; the way he struck many of the notes sounded, well, struck, rather than caressed or sung. But Watts eventually added more sensitivity in that movement to match the warmth coming from the orchestra, which was in sturdy form throughout the concerto. Alsop provided rock-solid partnering.

Sitting in a box seat quite near the stage Thursday night was another great American pianist, one who taught Watts at the Peabody Conservatory many years ago. Leon Fleisher could be seen adding heartily to the applause for his former student.

The concert repeats tonight and Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff, Saturday night at Strathmore.


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:14 AM | | Comments (6)


At the break right after the Bartok, I joined a long line for the men's room on the box-seat level. As I finally got inside and just past the door, I heard a voice behind me: "It's amazing how Bartok activates the bladder." Everyone laughed. I turned to smile at the quipster. It was Leon Fleisher.

Fabulous. Thanks for sharing. (I imagine the line would work just as well after Bruckner.) TIM

I agree with most of what you've said here. Especially that the Bartok plays to Alsop's strengths.

I thought Watts played the concerto with more delicacy than anyone I've heard before. It was a fascinating interpretation to me.

Overall, a truly fabulous concert last night.

Thanks very much for commenting. TIM

The Thursday performance of the Beethoven concerto was disappointing. Watts was fine, but from the weak opening to the flat third movement climax, Alsop's conducting seemed out of sync and mechanical. She buried her face in the score throughout. It all seemed under rehearsed.

Sitting 30 feet in front of the Steinway at Strathmore gave us an entirely new perspective on the Emperor concerto. In such a location, the orchestra is a backdrop for the piano. Most audience members prefer a bit more blending and sit further back, but if you want to encounter the piano and pianist, this is the place to be. Mr. Watts presented a powerful, energetic and masterful performance. The Beethoven and Mr. Watts were a wonderful counterpoint to an evening that had been so dominated by the richness of strings.

Way to go Lura ! Wish I had been there.

I am dismayed to hear that Ms. Alsop's Beethoven was "mechanical". The third time I ever heard her in concert, it was with that concerto, but Paul Lewis was playing. This may be a problem coming partly from the soloist. As for that soloist's dynamic range being more restricted than with Brahms, I would say "well, duh." That is precisely what I would expect, given the two composers and composing styles. But I agree with the comment about Ms. Alsop's on-podium demonstrations. She is never entirely at ease in them, and speaks better when she is not alternating her explanations with orchestral excerpts. I have seen her be surprised by a player who continued the melody, for example. Her wish to communicate seems to outstrip her capacity to in that prticular situation. Get her off the podium and she's a fountain of information.

I would suggest that loudness and sofness (dynamic range) and variety of tone coloring are not restricted to certain time periods or composers. All I said was that Watts had more of those nuances in his last performance here, and I would have enjiyed hearing that variety this time. Duh, indeed. TS

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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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