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April 15, 2012

Baltimore Symphony offers Russian program with French flavor

OK, I admit it upfront. I'm going to reach for a silly stereotype and generalization in discussing Lionel Bringuier's podium debut with leading the Baltimore Symphony this weekend in an all-Russian program.

I know this is as unfair as accusing a Russian conductor of making Brahms sound Russian, but this young Frenchman put a spin on the music that seemed very French.

I hasten to add I loved the combination of finesse, transparency, sensuality and delicacy that Binguier applied Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall.

Other listeners might not have found the results sufficiently Russian, with enough of dark drama and hefty sonic impact in such pieces as Mussorgsky's "A Night on Bald Mountain" or Tchaikovsky;'s "Romeo and Juliet."

I found no lack of temperament or surging power here. It's just that Bringuier paid great attention to subtle things in those scores, sought to make sure that a pianissimo -- and few conductors have gotten such genuine piannissimi out of the BSO as he did Friday -- registered with as much color and meaning as an all-out blast of orchestral force.

The Mussorgsky war horse emerged with ...

abundant atmosphere; the quiet closing moments, in particular, carried great poetic weight.

The well-traveled Tchaikovsky score likewise sounded quite fresh and engaging, with an emphasis on the noble side of the tragedy being depicted. Fine details in the orchestration came through beautifully; the famous love theme blossomed with plenty of feeling, but a great elegance as well.

And Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite unfolded most beguilingly under Bringuier's guidance. Again, the soft side of the music received particular attention, with the conductor coaxing exquisite refinement from the strings. All of that nuance paid off in terms of contrast with the score's explosive moments.

The BSO, which offered admirable playing throughout these works, also provided smooth and supple support for one of its own in Khachaturian's Violin Concerto -- concertmaster Jonathan Carney was the soloist.

Carney tackled the action-(if not content-)packed piece with even more confidence, bravura and color than I recall from his 2006 performance with Yuri Termikanov conducting.

The long stretches of perpetual motion in the finale, for example, seemed mere child's play for the soloist. He also managed to find something quite substantial in the tender Andante, which also inspired some more wonderful pianissimo playing from the ensemble.

This is not one of the most profound concertos in the repertoire. It's over-stuffed, sometimes over-wrought and seriously under-nourished. But it sure is fun. Carney effortlessly unleashed that entertainment value, with Bringuier a consistently stylish partner all the way.

Sunday afternoon's final performance at the Meyerhoff would be well worth catching.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:31 AM | | 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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