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February 17, 2012

A night of Austro-German drama with Baltimore Symphony

Drama is the operative word in this week's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program.

We're talking minor keys, heavy chords, heaving and sighing melodies, emotional outbursts. Oh, yes, and some death. But, hey, that's life.

It turned out to be quite a satisfying experience Thursday night at Strathmore. The repeat Friday night at the Meyerhoff should prove equally rewarding, if not more so.

All this dramatic activity springs from a familiar source -- the vast Austro-German repertoire that serves as the foundation of the symphonic world.

The biggest items reflect 19th-century German romanticism -- Brahms' "Tragic" Overture, Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" Overture, Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration."

A lot of piano concertos by Mozart -- they are, after all, products of sublime Viennese classicism -- would not fit smoothly with such company. But No. 20 in D minor can sure hold its own. This is Mozart in his darkest mode, stirring up quite a storm of ideas and turning them into something that approaches a three-act tragedy.

Although this particular concerto fits very well in the mix, that's not enough to justify the program's title. Have I mentioned before how much I hate, hate, hate the marketing trend that long ago swept the orchestra world, generating titles -- often meaningless -- for every program? Why advertise this one as "The Genius of Mozart" when he accounts for only one out of four works on the bill?

But I digress. Back to Thursday.

James Gaffigan, who made his BSO in 2009, was ...

back on the podium leading with a sure hand and an effective penchant for propulsion.

The Brahms overture churned and rumbled nicely. A little edgier approach would not have hurt, but the music spoke, and the orchestra delivered the message vibrantly.

The Wagner overture proved even more satisfying, with Gaffigan sweeping the music along. You could almost see menacing waves. Tension was maintained throughout, so that music of longing and redemption, too, had a powerful pull.

The brass let loose mightily Thursday night. The strings poured on the tone, and the woodwinds sang out warmly.

The same rich playing (some intonation slippage in the brass aside) also served the Strauss tone poem, which the conductor shaped persuasively.

The "Death" part of the score -- the struggles for breath, the flood of memories from early days -- emerged with terrific atmosphere. The slowly rising "Transfiguration" music could benefited from even more nuance in rhythm and phrasing, but it still registered.

Solo contributions by Jane Marvine (English horn) and Katherine Needleman (oboe) proved especially notable in the Wagner and Strauss pieces.

The Mozart concerto provided a fine vehicle for Lise de la Salle to make her BSO debut.

The young French pianist, who is quickly making a name for herself on the international scene, brought crystalline articulation to the score, with plenty of power as needed. 

She produced a volatile jolt in the first movement cadenza and tore through the finale at an impressive clip, maintaining clarity of line all the while. The slow movement -- exquisite lyricism that cannot entirely escape the threat of clouds -- could have used a little more nuance of tone coloring, but still proved affecting.

Gaffigan ensured smooth rapport between de la Salle and the orchestra. The woodwinds were in particularly shining form.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:26 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes


I enjoyed your review. My wife and I went to the same performance. I was impressed
by Gaffigan's warmth and affinity with the orchestra and his energy as well as that of Concertmaster Jordan Carney and the first cellist. I have admired the Strauss piece for years and listening to it live was a real treat.

Thanks for writing. There is nothing like a live encounter with a great Strauss tone poem. 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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