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May 25, 2012

Peter Oundjian leads Baltimore Symphony, Choral Arts in Beethoven, Bruckner

Beethoven's Ninth, never too far from earshot in Baltimore, is back this week, but with a most welcome companion piece -- Bruckner's "Te Deum."

And the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has a most welcome companion to conduct this pairing -- Peter Oundjian, who made a memorable appearance with the ensemble in 2009 and is generating telling results again.

Last night's concert at the Meyerhoff produced the most consistently satisfying account of the Ninth I've heard the BSO give. If the Bruckner performance wasn't as solid, it stirred nonetheless.

Oundjian, music director of the excellent Toronto Symphony Orchestra, managed to breathe a great deal of fresh life into the venerable Beethoven work. He did so not by applying any wildly unconventional touches (I wouldn't have minded those a bit, of course), but simply by ...

ensuring a level of intensity from start to finish.

He drew out the sense of mystery, even fear, in the first movement, getting the orchestra to put an extra bite into dynamic accents and dark chords. The Scherzo was driven along, but never at the expense of subtlety and variety of expression; the contrasting trio section emerged with a remarkable glow, thanks to Oundjian's lyrical phrasing and tender playing by the woodwinds.

The Adagio was taken closer to the kind of tempo common in the good old days, before the authenticity movement scared the heck out of so many musicians. The unhurried approach allowed the poetic depth to register richly, and the warmth of the BSO's strings to be savored.

Oundjian saw to it that the finale's frantic start had an extra kick. Throughout that movement, he balanced momentum and weightiness, holding the disparate portions of the score together to make one cohesive statement.

The Baltimore Choral Arts Society, prepared by director Tom Hall, rose to the occasion impressively. Except in the "Seid umschlungen" passage, when the men encountered tonal thinness and strain, the chorus sustained a smooth, full-bodied sound and articulated with admirable clarity.

The guest soloists proved a valiant lot. Morris Robinson filled the hall with his deep, resonant bass. Tenor Nicholas Phan, stepping in for an indisposed Brandon Jovanovich, found top notes a stretch, but the rest emerged warm and sure, and his phrasing was full of vitality.

Soprano Joyce El-Khoury, whose opera performances I have admired at Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival, did shining work. Mezzo Mary Phillips completed the quartet ably.

I've said often that we don't hear enough Bruckner here; this was the first time his "Te Deum" has been  programmed by the nearly century-old BSO. Seriously overdue. 

Oundjian's tempos felt rushed, especially in the final section, when Bruckner quotes the soulful theme from his Seventh Symphony; the grandeur was missing. Still, the propulsive approach had its rewards -- the coda proved decidedly uplifting -- and the conductor's sensitivity to dynamic contrasts paid off nicely.

There was plenty of vivid singing from the chorus and the soloists (Phan did particularly eloquent work), but the orchestra didn't seem entirely settled into the notes. My guess is that the performances tonight and Saturday will be hotter. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:02 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes



I was at the Saturday performance--thanks for your excellent review. You can post this or not, but I recently learned from a Japanese friend of a friend how big the 9th is in Japan, where it is performed as holiday music. It was introduced to Japan by some German prisoners and now its quite a deal there--huge stadium performances with hundreds of singers, sing-alongs (really) etc. Here's a link to a NY Times story. There are many similar, just search Beethoven's 9th in Japan.


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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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