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October 23, 2010

Mikhail Simonyan, Gilbert Varga make impressive debuts with Baltimore Symphony

The guest artist roster for the Baltimore Symphony's 2010-11 season isn't exactly overloaded with celebrity names, so Midori's scheduled appearance this week stood out on the schedule.

But the celebrated violinist made a late-in-the-game cancelation, leaving the orchestra to scramble for someone to take her place in the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1. What a cool replacement he turned out to be.

Mikhail Simonyan, Russian-born and New York-based, is the real deal, a young fiddler with remarkable technical aplomb and interpretive eloquence.

His memorable BSO debut coincides with that of Hungarian conductor Gilbert Varga, who's the real deal, too. There's one more performance of the all-Russian program Saturday night at the Meyerhoff; I'd say it's worth changing plans for.

The Shostakovich concerto is, like so much of the composer's output, very personal, almost uncomfortably so. You can sense the darkness and dread of the Stalin era hanging over the score; you can feel also the struggle of an artist intent on following his own path toward the light.

On Friday night, Simonyan

revealed the inner world of the score, using an extraordinarily pure, golden tone and richly nuanced phrasing. He produced some of the most beautiful pianissimi I've heard in ages. And I was impressed how he drew the audience into the quietest, most intimate portions of the work -- very little coughing in the hall, a great sign of how strongly Simonyan was connecting. When the music turned from introspection to outspoken bitterness and irony, the violinist made the switch naturally and affectingly, and with abundant bravura. He enjoyed attentive support from Varga and mostly smooth, always committed playing from the orchestra.

Glinka's familar, ever-welcome Overture to "Ruslan and Ludmilla" started the evening off vibrantly. Varga did not go for supsersonic speed here, but had the war horse galloping along nicely.

To close, there was a sparkling and absorbing performance of Stravinsky's "Petrouchka." Conducting from memory, Varga went far beyond the surface appeal of this prismatic piece to conjure up its sweeping drama and often biting humor. Rapid shifts of tempo and mood were seamlessly made, and Varga ensured that the subtlest of instrumental details registered as tellingly as the most blazing outbursts of the full ensemble. It sounded to me like the musicians were having a ball. I got a kick out of the performance, too.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:26 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes


I could not disagree more. I saw the BSO perform this concert Saturday and it was one of the most disappointing concerts I have ever been to. In fact this is the first concert I have ever walked out on. The orchestra was lacking energy in Glinka - lackluster comes to mind. The soloist dropped a note and had a smile on his face for half of the concerto. Please explain how one smiles throughout Shostakovich Violin concerto No. 1? This piece was painful to watch. The orchestra was barely together. The french horns were flat and the cellos were barely heard. Varga obviously a graceful conductor did not have control of this musician run orchestra.

At one point in the concert I even saw Varga beg a player to please watch him - Just after the second movement of Shostakovich which sounded more like the orchestra warming up.

Every performance can be different, of course. Still, this sounds like an awfully big change from what I heard the night before. (As for a smile, I wasn't sitting close enough to see that. Then again, Jimmy Carter used to smile when he wasn't saying smiley things. Maybe it doesn't always have to mean something.) TS

NO - you must be kidding right?

"The soloist dropped a note..." - has got to be one of the most ridiculous things I have ever heard anyone say about a soloist. Do you have any idea how difficult this piece is?! I would imagine that in a 35 minute piece, it's probably quite all right to drop A note or even 2?!

The soloist smiled? Well, in case you completely missed the point (which seems to be the case), the 2nd and 4th movements of this concerto contain quite a bit of sarcasm, which I believe does sometimes allow for a smile or two.

You saw a conductor "beg a player to please watch him..." ? Unless you were sitting in FRONT of the conductor, it's hard to imagine you actually COULD see that - but even if you did, I hate to break it to you, but that is WHAT GREAT CONDUCTORS DO sometimes. Every performance is different - and a conductor, like a football coach sends out commands and ideas, while the players implement them.

It's amazing to see such a completely different opinion on this concert, since I also was at the Saturday night concert. I spoke to a few people who came back after hearing the concert Friday night, and they were just as thrilled to hear it again.

One thing I do wish we saw more of - was audience. It was absolutely shameful to have such a dismal showing in the hall on Saturday. I did not know that Midori had cancelled until I showed up at the concert, but cannot imagine that most did as well.

Can't wait to see both Simonyan and Varga return.

Thanks for jumping into the discussion. I confess I'm rather inclined toward your view of things. 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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