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April 29, 2011

German conductor Cornelius Meister makes impressive Baltimore Symphony debut

Wow. That sure was fun.

Thursday night's Baltimore Symphony concert at Meyerhoff Hall introduced the audience to Cornelius Mesiter, a barely-into-his-30s conductor from Germany. I hope he comes back soon.

I must confess that a tinge of skepticism came over me when I first saw the lithe, boyishly handsome Meister practically jog onto the stage, a big smile on his face. Oh no, thought I. Way too eager. But one measure into Smetana's Overture to "The Bartered Bride," such silly doubts vanished. It was clear this guy is for real.

Meister, whose various posts include chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony, drew an exceptionally polished and expressive response from the BSO.

It was cool to hear the strings flying through the fugal passages of the overture with such flair, to hear the woodwinds producing so much color and charm. There was a spark, I'm telling you, an honest-to-goodness spark. And it never dimmed.

At the end of the evening came a radiant account of  ...

Brahms' Second Symphony. Meister paid keen attention to such matters as dynamic contrasts and accents. He allowed for affectingly spacious phrasing when the score was at its most lyrical, but didn't hesitate to rev up the engines when the pace quickened -- the dancing outbursts in the Allegretto, the whirl of the finale.

The music came alive in ways that struck me as unusually fresh and absorbing. Even the way Meister held onto the very last, emphatic note -- just a few tiny seconds more than we typically get, but so, so satisfying -- made a big difference.

The orchestra sounded eager and inspired. Again, the strings poured on the tonal warmth; woodwinds and brass articulated with terrific character. Phil Munds delivered the horn solos with his usual, disarming eloquence.

I don't mean to slight the program's other attraction -- Max Bruch's terribly neglected Violin Concerto No. 2, which provided an amiable vehicle for BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney. The much-played Concerto No. 1 may contain more indelible melodies and may be more tightly constructed, but No. 2, fueled by equal splashes of drama and poetry, has a great deal to recommend it.

Aside from a little smudging in some bravura-bursting bits, Carney's playing was technically impressive throughout. Even more impressive was the vibrant richness of his phrasing, the way he had the music singing and purring. Meister partnered the violinist smoothly and kept the orchestral side of things flowing in style.

The program will be repeated Friday night at Meyerhoff, Saturday at Strathmore. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:40 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes


Also impressive was Meister's keeping the baton in the air to minimize the usual coughing and shuffling fits at some concerts. It should become standard practice.

Yes, indeed. A simple method of crowd control. TIM

I just came from Strathmore and generally agree with your assessment. But I wish the program notes would have talked about Mahler's arrangement of Smetana's Overture, instead of (or in addition to) talking of the work in general. I don't have the scores, but, just from listening, it does seem that Mahler's alterations were minimal; more like re-touchings.

One should point out that Mahler conducted the whole Bartered Bride both in Vienna and at the Met. Did he arrange / alter / touch other sections as well, or just the overture?

My research indicates that he did retouch the opera (he also played the overture in between the first two acts at the Met, for the benefit of latecomers -- more radical than any re-orchestrating, I'd say). Like you, I could not hear enormous differences in the scoring of the overture. Had I not officially been still on vacation last week, I would have dropped by a rehearsal to learn more first-hand. Maybe one of the BSO folks could shed some light on whatever significant changes were made. TS

Interesting thing on Mahler playing the overture between the first two acts! But I think that composer Ron Nelson made it one better: he actually composed a "Overture for Latecomeres!" It was played by the NSO in the 60s. I wish Leonard Saltkin, who, in St. Louis championed Ron Nelson, would have revived the work in Washington (how can one not love, or at least be curious about, a work with such a title!)

Thank you, Tim and Don. I’m happy to provide more background on the altered version that the BSO performed this past weekend.

In general, the purpose of Mahler’s retouchings is to enhance or dramatize the composer’s intentions. Mahler’s retouching of the Smetana overture deals primarily with thinning or reinforcing the orchestration.

Mahler intended the woodwind parts be doubled at certain times throughout the overture, however, for these performances the compliment Smetana prescribed were used. What was observed was that in a few measures sustained notes or timpani notes were left out to lighten the texture. Dynamics were changed to bring out certain pitches or motifs. Mahler also used Beethoven’s method of gradually adding body and strength to passages that begin softly and increase in volume by using a small compliment of strings at first then adding players stand by stand (the best example of Beethoven’s use of this device is the soft scurrying violin passage at the end of the Leonore Overture No. 3 that increases in volume).

It is not unusual for conductors, during the course of rehearsals, to suggest that certain notes be accented or played shorter or longer as an interpretive liberty. Mahler very simply indicates these things graphically. It should be stated that it is not unusual for conductors to edit orchestra parts – it saves rehearsal time.
The one touch that may have caught some listener’s attention in the Bartered Bride performance is the final flourish in the woodwinds before the last five staccato chords and fermata of the overture. Mahler indicates a slight pause after the flourish (graphically indicated by two parallel, slanted lines – known in musician’s slang as railroad tracks); Smetana did not indicate this.

And here's something for you score readers out there. Please look to the last movement of Mahler’s first symphony, specifically the viola line, measures 519 through 529. That three note motif is Mahler’s nod to the same three note motif (albeit in a different key) that is stated emphatically in measures 8 through 10 in the Bartered Bride Overture; the opera was a great favorite of Mahler’s.

Ray Kreuger
Associate Orchestra Librarian
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Thank you Mr. Krueger!

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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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