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May 28, 2011

Baltimore Symphony gives dynamic concert with Carlos Kalmar, Karen Gomyo

Now that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra no longer automatically offers multiple performances of every program -- a matter of scheduling, cost-consciousness, marketing, etc. -- you could easily miss something very cool.

A case in point: Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall was the only chance in Baltimore to catch an unusual combination of repertoire and exceptional music-making. (The program does have one more outing, Saturday at the BSO’s second home in Bethesda.)

Back on the podium was one of the BSO’s most frequent guest conductors, Carlos Kalmar, who has been doing great work with the Oregon Symphony for the past eight years (he led the ensemble in a highly-praised Carnegie Hall debut earlier this month).

He enjoys an obvious chemistry with the Baltimore players, and that was evident at the start Friday in a lovingly shaped account of the second movement from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3.

Typically, a portion of a Mahler symphony is not heard out of context; the public expects to hear Mahler complete these days. But Benjamin Britten, having developed a taste for the composer’s work at a time and place -- the UK, 1930s -- when Mahler got little respect or attention, decided to arrange a movement from the Third Symphony for reduced orchestra. Britten hoped this would help more people experience Mahler.

This particular movement -- Britten used Mahler’s original title for it, “What the Wild Flowers Tell Me” -- offers an endearing episode of gentle, even folksy lyricism, qualities that Kalmar’s rhythmic elasticity enhanced. The BSO didn’t look or sound all that reduced, but played with admirable transparency. The woodwinds articulated with particular warmth and charm.

If the Mahler item suggests something akin to a pretty postcard view of nature, the Violin Concerto by Jean Sibelius gives you ...

the rougher, more unsettled side, where mists may cloud the view, craggy heights may suddenly loom. But this is irresistible stuff, right from the opening measures, which seem to emerge out of a thick fog, the solo violin serving as a torch light that beckons and transfixes.

Karen Gomyo tackled the challenging concerto with remarkable technical ease and, more impressive still, a kind of radiant phrasing. Her tone was sweet, but never saccharine. She spun out melodic lines with the beauty and insight of a poet; her pianissimos in the Adagio were ravishing. The rougher side of the music did not go short-changed; she dug in mightily and grittily as needed.

The violinist’s stirring work was matched by Kalmar and the BSO; the performance clicked tightly.

A vociferous response from the audience drew an encore from Gomyo -- a little more than one, actually. She started playing one of the Tango-Etudes by Astor Piazzolla (the energetic No. 3, I think), then suddenly stopped, laughed and said, “I didn’t practice that. I’m sorry.” No harm done, for she quickly switched to the bittersweet Etude No. 4 and delivered it most eloquently.

The concert closed with the BSO’s first-ever performance of the powerhouse Symphony No. 1 from 1935 by William Walton, a composer whose music ought to be much more frequently played around here (how about bringing Gomyo back for his Violin Concerto?).

The playing was not always stop-on. Some of the trickier bits, especially in the scherzo, and a few brass entrances could have used polishing. But the orchestra charged into the eventful score with palpable enthusiasm and summoned a deep, vivid tone.

Kalmar ensured an exhilarating sweep to the performance, which reaffirmed Walton’s genius --and, incidentally, reminded everyone how, in “Star Wars,” John Williams just might have paid the sincerest form of flattery to the composer.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:34 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

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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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