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June 2, 2012

Conductor Gunther Herbig leads Baltimore Symphony with Old World charm

Given the rude, crude, perfunctory way of the world these days, the time may well come when no one remembers or appreciates Old World charm -- in any form.

Musically, Old World charm involves elegance and genuineness of expression, a refined sense of proportion, and a certain something hard to define -- the aural equivalent of a twinkle in the eye.

At 80, veteran conductor Gunther Herbig provides a great example of all those traits.

A frequent Baltimore Symphony podium guest, Herbig is back for what, on paper, looks like an awfully ordinary program -- Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert -- but there was nothing routine Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall. Old World magic filled the air from the get-go.

At the start of Mozart's Symphony No. 40, just the way Herbig had the violins articulating the opening theme spoke volumes about style, with beautifully modulated gradations of dynamics giving the familiar music renewed eloquence.

The tempo in that movement was spacious (by today's rhythmic standards for Mozart), but ...

not devoid of tension. Same for the Andante, here more of a rapt adagio, gently sculpted by the conductor and warmly phrased by the ensemble.

The remainder of the symphony -- a truly vigorous Menuetto, a stiff-shoulder finale -- proved just as freshly engaging.

At the center of this program, which provides a mini-music history lesson in 30 years of Viennese musical life, is Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3.

Jonathan Biss, a pianist of considerable gifts, is a great choice for the solo duties. He has technique to burn and a tone that, even when pushed, is never harsh. There's a sense of spontaneity and discovery in his playing, perfect for Beethoven.

Last night, Biss delivered a richly satisfying account of the concerto, poetic and impassioned, and he enjoyed supple collaboration with Herbig and the BSO. (Presumably, none of the musicians could hear the distraction those of us in the house had to endure throughout the Beethoven, including the sublime Largo -- a loud conversation carried on, from what I gathered later, by a hall employee in the sound booth. Oy.)

The concert closed with Schubert's Symphony No. 6, a score brimming with Shirley Temple cheeriness and a splash of muscle-flexing. Herbig's tempos allowed the ingratiating melodies to blossom sweetly and his attention to detail, especially dynamic levels, meant that the myriad colors in the orchestration could be fully savored. The orchestra responded with sparkling, buoyant playing.

The program will be repeated Saturday night at the Meyerhoff.


Posted by Tim Smith at 12:36 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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