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February 13, 2011

A few more words about the Baltimore Symphony's Rachmaninoff/Bruckner program

If you're reading this before 3 p.m. Sunday and you haven't caught the Baltimore Symphony's latest program, go for it. (The final performance will be at that hour at the Meyerhoff.) For one thing, who knows when we'll get more Bruckner around here?

The opportunity to hear a finely considered, powerfully delivered account of that composer's Sixth Symphony conducted by Juanjo Mena is reason enough to consider this a major winter gift from the BSO. Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, which rounds out the bill, isn't nearly so uncommon, but it receives a worthy outing from soloist Yuja Wang.

Or at least that was how it all sounded Friday night at the Meyerhoff. I must say I wasn't expecting such a big crowd there -- not after intermission, at any rate, when the Bruckner was slated. Maybe audiences aren't as afraid of his music as some programmers seem to think. The symphony was heard, for the most part, with

rapt attention, another favorable sign. So, hey, BSO management: Bring on the Bruckner.

The Sixth is filled with great themes, vivid colors, gripping rhythms. True, it doesn't end as fabulously as it should. Bruckner, it seems to me, sometimes had a problem with finales. He would essentially compose an extra first movement, with all the breadth and weightiness that implies, and call it a finale, which I think happens here -- great stuff, to be sure, but it just misses the mark in terms of a totally, emotionally satisfying wrap-up.

Still, I love this symphony and it felt wonderful to wallow in the majestic Brucknerian wash of sound in the great acoustics of the Meyerhoff. And Mena, conducting from memory, shaped the score with a loving hand. All sorts of inner details emerged clearly within the big picture -- and Bruckner is all about big pictures. Mena offered terrific sweep, tension, potency and unending lyrical warmth.

Although a few individual sounds were a little shaky, the overall level of the orchestra's playing was as good as it gets here -- burnished string tone, elegant woodwinds, dynamite brass. The musicians sounded like they played Bruckner all the time, which is one more reason I wish they did.

The Rachmaninoff chestnut was perhaps not the most logical choice for a companion piece, but it provided a welcome opportunity to hear Wang's classy approach to the concerto.

Hers wasn't the biggest, boldest kind of pianism; she was easily swamped by the orchestra in places, although it seemed more by design, as if the pianist wanted to bore into the orchestral fabric. But Wang offered a steady expressive force in her phrasing and delivered abundant bravura when needed. Mena was fully in sync with his soloist and coaxed some nicely shaded playing from the ensemble.

As if to make sure that everyone understood she could do anything she wanted at the keyboard, Wang gave in to the sustained ovation and threw in an over-the-top encore -- the Horowitz arrangement of the Gypsy Song from Bizet's "Carmen." She didn't erase memories of Horowitz (who could?), but she sure played the heck out it.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:52 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes


I regret to say that I had to miss these concerts due to work (which also kept me from Eschenbach's Bruckner 6th concerts earlier this season), but I fully expected Juanjo's account to be every bit as successful as you describe.

The 6th was my "first" Bruckner, and I absolutely love it. True, the finale kinda "arrives suddenly" at its climax (i.e., it could've used about 5-8 more minutes of development, which would have placed it in the infinitely-superior realm of the GREAT 5th's finale), but when handled well (as Eschenbach did in Philly a few years ago!), one hardly feels the "abruptness" at the finish.

(And, of course, the other three movements are chock full o' goodness; the brooding scherzo's peaceful trio even gives a nod back to the main recurring theme of the 5th. The adagio isn't as "transcendant" as some of the others, but it is absolutely beautiful. And the first movement, the so-called "Majestoso," is practically a great work unto itself!!!)

I'll second that. Thanks for writing. TIM

Oh, yeah -- speaking of Wang getting "swamped by the orchestra," that comes as no surprise; really, unless you're Rachmaninoff (or, perhaps, Garrick Ohlsson? ;^), not too many pianists have the raw POWER to survive the orchestra in Sergei's pianos concertos. You tend to only hear the piano part _clearest_ in recordings, and even _that_ is not true all of the time. (Which is a shame, because the piano's role is absolutely fabulous, even when it's just in a temporary "supporting role.")

Of course, NO one should do Rachmaninoff without vibrato, but the textures would be _much_ clearer if the ol' "Norrington" approach were applied.....

(We _must_ recall that Sergei was one of Taneyev's pupils, so his counterpoint is _exceptional_, just like Medtner's. In THIS sense, pairing Bruckner with Rachmaninoff, two students of the 19th century's finest contrapuntal theorists, Sechter and Taneyev, is an _incredibly_ wise decision. ;^)

The Bruckner was superb- I was greatly impressed that it was conducted from memory, and that Maestro Mena waited until the audience was completely silent! The BSO has been playing one Bruckner Symphony per season and I hope that continues. The Rachmaninoff needs a vacation- would have loved to have heard the Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto number 4, or one of the Prokofiev concerti. Those works, rarely heard, would have offered more interesting comparisons with the grand Bruckner. The orchestra sounded wonderful! thank you.

OK, party spoiler. For me the Bruckner 6th under Mena was a huge disappointment, much more so in the light of the marvelous performance by Eschenbach and the NSO from a few months ago, IMO the best concert yet from the new music director. And also in the light of Mena's previous BSO appearances.

I attended the Strathmore concert on Thursday. I would be surprised if Mena fundamentally changed his approach to the work in the other two concerts; he certainly is no Mengelberg, Scherchen, or Silvestri, conductors known to do that (I kind-of remember reading that Silvestri said that he once conducted a Brahms symphony four different ways in four different nights: the French Way, the German Way, the British way, and the Italian way; it would be fun to see what he exactly meant by that.) But I digress, and, as I said, Mena is certainly a good conductor.

For me the main flaw of the reading was that it emphasized a lyrical side in this, the most luminous, and yes, sauciest, of Bruckner's symphonies ("Die Sechste ist die Keckste.") And I am sorry to say, I did not feel any sweep, especially with Eschenbach's version fresh in mind.

The conductor chose slower tempi, or at least that what it seemd like, without being able to maintain the necessary tension. Even Celibidache, one of Mena's teachers, is more alive in this work (Celi's by the way is my favorite version of the work, with Joseph Keilbert's coming a razor-close second.) And, unfortunately, the Strathmore audience was no more enthusiastic than I was, although it did listen patiently to the work. But if I were new to Bruckner, the performance would not have made me a convert.

Yes, kuddos to the BSO for programming the work, and let's actually note that the BSO was more generous with the composer than the NSO was recently. Let's remember performances by Herbig and Venzago from recent seasons, although, with Eschenbach at the helm, I expect more Bruckner from the NSO in the future as well.

As for Rachmaminov, it was a decent version that in no way justifies why Yuja Wang is held in such high regard. Thursday's concert showed us a good pianist, but good pianists are not exactly in short supply these days. For something unique, personal, and maddening, there was Radu Lupu with the NSO this weekend.

I'm afraid I have to say that--somewhat to my relief, actually--the good Don Ciccio heard exactly the same concert on Thursday that I heard Friday night at the Meyerhoff. Don, were you by any chances coming down with a virus on Thursday (as I apparently was on Friday)? I didn't hear Eschenbach's reading of the Bruckner 6th, but I thought this performance was somewhat, well . . . cludgy: no tension, no sweep, and to be honest, I didn't think the orchestra sounded in peak form for the Bruckner, either. I had drifted so far in my concentration that I failed to recognize the ending of the symphony until my husband said "You can clap now."

This was a let-down because--although he's never going to be one of my desert island composers--I really do welcome the occasional Bruckner on the program. I've also come to appreciate Mena's conducting and looked forward to hearing him do this symphony.

As for Ms. Wang, Don Ciccio hit the nail on the head once again. She's a good pianist who simply failed to help me find anything fresh in this old warhorse. And if you're going to play the Rach II that's what you have to do IMO. The silly Carmen encore is, of course, not really music; it's just acrobatics.

A disappointment from start to finish.

I found the performance of the Bruckner very powerful and illuminating. It made a work that remained an enigma to me from Jochum's recording into one of my favorites. I shall henceforth think of it as Bruckner's "Big Bang" Symphony, because it felt like experiencing the Creation in slow motion.

Re the Rachmaninoff, I'm glad to hear that the conductor was not to blame for my difficulty in hearing the piano. Evidently this is a work better heard on disc, where the recording can bring out the piano part as necessary.

For GMark,

I would like to think that I was healthy on Thursday night, although my wife would argue otherwise... :-)

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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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