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January 28, 2011

Baltimore Symphony offers hot program with Juanjo Mena, Augustin Hadelich

The intrepid folks who ventured out Thursday night to Meyerhoff Hall heard a most rewarding concert by the Baltimore Symphony. The repeats there Friday night or Saturday at Strathmore would be well worth braving the black ice for.

Every guest appearance by Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena over the years has been notable; this one is no exception.

He's a wonderfully romantic interpreter -- in the best sense of that word (at least as I define it -- and, hey, making grand pronouncements is my hobby). Mena loves to put a singing quality into phrases, to find little bends and breaths within a tempo, to make as big an effort for delicious pianissimos as for thunderous explosions. 

To start, he offered a Haydn symphony -- No. 85 ("La Reine") -- and shaped it with great sensitivity. It's absurd how infrequently Haydn turns up at the BSO (at most orchestras, I suspect). There are so many attractive themes, so many clever ways of developing them, so many vivid touches of orchestration in nearly all of his many symphonies. The way Haydn explores every angle of the simple tune used in the second movement of this particular score, to mention one example, is simply a marvel. You can't help but smile. The BSO responded elegantly and cohesively to Mena's winning way with this work.

It was fun hearing the Haydn just before another four-movement piece filled with attractive melodies and a strong rhythmic pulse --

Roberto Sierra's Sinfonia No. 4, which the BSO helped to commission with 11 other orchestras. The composer's knack for creating both razzle-dazzle and subtle shimmering from essentially traditional instrumentation was evident at every turn.

The first movement's dark harmonies added a piquant flavor; the way the movement slowly ground to a halt, like an engine running out of fuel, produced an intriguing effect. The brassy, percussive punch of the second movement and the ultra-Latin dance band drive of the finale proved irresistible.

The ensemble seemed to share Mena's obvious enthusiasm and delivered considerable technical and expressive fire. Acknowledging the warm ovation afterward, the conductor picked up the score from the podium and gave it its own bow. 

The second half of the evening was devoted to the Brahms Violin Concerto, which introduced soloist Augustin Hadelich to the BSO guest artist roster.

The young German violinist has a startling back story. A dozen years ago, when he was 15, his upper body, including his bow arm, was badly burned in a fire. But he returned to the violin quickly and has been enjoying a fast-paced career. It's easy to hear why.

Hadelich's tone is exquisite, never losing its sweetness even when, as in the finale of the Brahms, it gets an infusion of sinew. His musicality is equally impressive. He had the familiar concerto sounding fresh and vital, not to mention intensely poetic, and he enjoyed supple support from Mena and the orchestra.

The performance had a downright heart-warming quality, which may explain why I didn't even notice the cold when I left the hall.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:54 AM | | Comments (1)


I was surprised that neither the soloist or his conductor acknowledged the great oboe soloist in the Brahms. But you didn't either... maybe it was just me. Sarasate said, “Would I stand there,” he said, “violin in hand, while the oboe plays the only melody in the whole work?”

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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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