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May 12, 2012

Baltimore Symphony performs romantic gems by Rachmaninoff, Elgar

May is turning out to be a great month for the Baltimore Symphony.

A week after a potent combination of a Ravel concerto and a Shostakovich symphony, the orchestra has put a Rachmaninoff concerto and an Elgar symphony together to form another satisfying and well-delivered program.

Of course, you have to be in the mood for sweeping lyricism and grand statements. This lineup is not for the cold of heart.

On Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall, before tackling Rachmaninoff's much-loved Concerto No. 2, Andre Watts came onstage to receive the National Medal of Arts.

The pianist had been unable to attend the White House ceremony in February due to a concert engagement (among those receiving this year's medals were Al Pacino and Mel Tillis). So Wayne Brown, director of music and opera for the NEA, took this opportunity to make the official presentation.

BSO music director Marin Alsop read the certificate, signed by President Obama, that praised Watts for his ...

"superb technique and unwavering passion." A few minutes later, the pianist demonstrated both attributes in a typically high-Watt(s)age performance of the Rachmaninoff war horse.

The soloist's playing was impressively muscular. A few melodic lines certainly could have been less heavily articulated, but there still was considerable sensitivity as well. I loved how, in the finale, Watts seemed to signal to the orchestra, "Let's kick it up a notch" -- everyone really did seem to shift into the next gear for the charge to the finish line.

The pianist enjoyed steady support from Alsop and the ensemble, which needed only a deeper, more passionate tone from the strings.

Elgar's Symphony No. 1, last played by the BSO in 2004 with James Judd conducting (by contrast, it has been only a year since the Rachmaninoff concerto turned up), is a splendid work. It ought to be performed in this country as often as, say, Mahler's First. This is such noble, genuine, stirring music.

Like so much of Elgar's work, this symphony can be appreciated on a purely intellectual level -- the ingenious thematic development, especially involving the stately motto theme woven through the score.

It can be appreciated purely for the orchestration, which is as richly varied and finely applied as the best of Strauss. Above all, it can be savored for its inner emotional world, where melancholy is never too far away. There is a level of lyricism in this symphony that can really get to you, can make you feel as if you are hearing someone read from a diary about great struggles and hopes, and finding the way home.

Alsop revealed considerable appreciation for the warmth and breadth of the piece. Only in the Adagio did I feel her holding back slightly. I would have loved just a little more spaciousness, a touch more rubato in spots, a darker intensity in others.

But this was still a rewarding and involving interpretation. Particularly admirable was Alsop's assured handling of the many tempo shifts within the movements, allowing a natural flow, and her attention to minute details in the skittish scherzo.

She had the closing moments of the finale reaching a truly majestic level of expression, thanks to some downright radiant playing by an orchestra that seemed thoroughly caught up in the experience from the very first bars of the symphony. The strings this time poured out a golden sound, matched by great warmth and solidity from the brass.

The classy performance made me hope that we will get Elgar's Symphony No. 2 someday soon. Meanwhile, this program repeats Saturday night at Strathmore, Sunday afternoon at Meyherhoff.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:13 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop

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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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