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March 20, 2011

Baltimore Symphony welcomes conductor Mario Venzago, violinist Baiba Skride

Mario VenzagoWhen I got here nearly 11 years ago, one of the greatest musical rewards was experiencing the partnership of Yuri Temirkanov and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

One of the next greatest was hearing the BSO with a then-frequent podium guest, Mario Venzago, who had quite a magical way with him -- musically and personally.

Venzago was back over the weekend and, judging by Saturday night's performance at the Meyerhoff, he hasn't lost his knack with these players.

In Schubert's Symphony No. 5, the conductor coaxed a sound that truly danced, sang, sighed, floated -- just as he has done on previous occasions with works by Mozart (Schubert's Fifth could almost have been Mozart's Forty-Second).

How does Venzago do that? He gets a refinement of tone and dynamics from the BSO that no one else in my time here has quite matched. It really is a beautiful thing to hear. The poetic charms and lyrical warmth of the Schubert symphony emerged most tellingly under his fluent guidance.

For Beethoven's Fifth, Venzago had the strings going easy on the vibrato, an effective touch. He wasn't just after sonic nuance, though, but went for the score's famous drama in compelling fashion, too. The performance proved fresh and stirring.

In between came one of the glories of 20th century music ...

Berg's Violin Concerto. What a marvel it is, a fusion of Mahler-worthy late-romanticism with the revolutionary harmonic principals of the Second Viennese School. The music is so personal, intimate and -- yes, I know it's still tough going for some listeners today (I spotted a couple of mid-performance desertions Saturday) -- absolutely, profoundly beautiful in the deepest sense of that word.

I loved the calm technical assurance that the young soloist, Baiba Skride, brought to the concerto, along with her gorgeous tone and affinity for songful phrasing. And I loved the way Venzago sculpted the orchestral side of things, attentive to the most delicate orchestral colors, sensitive to the waltz tempos that so touchingly haunt the work. The orchestra responded with playing of subtle expressive power.

An addition was made to the program to acknowledge the disaster in Japan -- just before the Beethoven, Venzago led the ensemble in a lovely arrangement by BSO bassist Jonathan Jensen of an old Japanese song, "The Moon Over the Ruined Castle." The orchestra has performed this arrangement as an encore on tours to Japan, and it fit this somber occasion perfectly.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:07 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes


You are right about Venzago and the BSO. Easily the best performance of Beethoven's Ninth I've heard was with Venzago and the BSO one summer series several years ago. Saturday night's performance was equally inspired and thoughtful. I wish I knew more about why some conductors are so successful with works that we've all heard so many times. It's always a treat when he conducts. Of course, it also requires great musicians for such success.

Thanks for writing. It will be interesting to hear him conduct the Ninth here again next season. TIM

The Saturday BSO performance was, indeed, first rate, and the orchestra responded technically and emotionally to Verganzo's elegant and spirited direction in a way it seldom does to Alsop's mechanical direction.
But what bothered me was the constant and determined applause between movements in all three selections by some sections of the audience, a practice I experienced again Sunday when many in Shriver Hall interrupted Gil
Shahan's otherwise exquisite performance of Bach partitas and violin sonatas. Perhaps there should be a pre-performance announcement.

Always good to hear that Mario makes his usual fine, strong impression on the orchestra -- which just served to double-underscore how Indy lost such a fine maestro when they gave him the (undeserved and insulting) boot!

I am _very_ much looking forward to his return next season! Both he and Herbig could make many _more_ guest appearances here, as far as I'm concerned.

The Schubert was an absolute delight, and the Beethoven was indeed fresh, if a bit rushed (at points) and quirky (e.g., the diminuendo on the fermata'd D in the opening statement). As for the Berg: I had looked forward to it, and was hoping for the best. Maybe it was because we were in row X, but the soloist wasn't projecting as well as I would have liked. There were wonderful moments, but the performance seemed more dutiful (as in "Darn, it's hard playing in no key--accidentals everywhere! Oh, well ...") than inspired. Maybe it could have used more rehearsal time, or a firmer grasp on the score by the conductor. But it was a great evening, and I'm glad the BSO gave the Berg a shot.

Always good to hear another view. If you caught any of Sunday's many concerts around town, let me know -- I missed them all and would be happy to have a guest blog post from someone who hear Shaham or Monument Piano Trio or Pro Musica Rara or ..... 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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