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October 20, 2012

Classy music-making from Juanjo Mena, Benedetto Lupo, Baltimore Symphony

When you hear the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra play with the kind of fire it demonstrated Friday night, there's no debating that the musicians deserve the salary increases that have eluded them over the past decade because of assorted financial setbacks in the organization.

This week's news of a deficit from last season that could exceed $750,000 must have the players suspecting that raises will once again be hard to come by when another contract is negotiated next year.

With luck and fresh energy, things may well look rosier by then, but right now, the cloud over Meyerhoff Hall has to affect morale onstage. Not that it could be detected Friday.

The orchestra, led by one its favorite guest conductors, Juanjo Mena, gave a roof-rattling account of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 that ranks among the most visceral experiences I can recall in that place in some time.

The strings summoned a deep, rich tone for each lyrical theme, and proved fearless and crisp in the opening whirlwind of the finale, which Mena took at a wonderfully maniacal clip. Note too the sensitivity to dynamics from these players in the pizzicato third movement.

Lots of expressive molding came from the woodwinds, and waves of power from the brass (a few raw notes proved less problematic in such an intense performance).

Mena's role in all of this excitement was considerable. The Spanish conductor managed ...

to make an over-exposed piece sound freshly compelling, often with subtle touches of phrasing and, in the last movement, with an intriguing way of cutting out the usual breathing room before the start of the second theme.

The Tchaikovsky item was not the only memorable achievement. Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3 also delivered intense rewards.

The soloist was the excellent Benedetto Lupo, making his BSO debut. It has been a long while since I heard the Italian pianist, who took the bronze at the 1989 Van Cliburn Competition.

The qualities I admired back in the 1990s were very much in evidence Friday -- unfailing beauty of tone matched with solid technique and refined musicality.

Lupo brought clarity of articulation and piquant phrasing to the outer movements, and achieved poetic warmth in the richly atmospheric Adagio (unfortunately, members of the audience went in for a bout of competitive coughing at this point in the concerto).

Throughout, the pianist enjoyed attentive support from Mena and finely detailed playing from the BSO, which seemed to relish the piquant harmonies of this brilliantly constructed score.

The program opened with three of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances from Op. 72. There was sufficient character and rhythmic life, but also some ragged playing and thick textures. A minor disappointment, though, in an otherwise first-rate night of music-making.

The program will be repeated Sunday at 3.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:44 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes


The guest conductors during the Marin Alsop years have been excellent. We have heard them leading many inspired performances that were warmly applauded by the audience. I don't know who deserves the credit for selecting them, but whoever that is deserves a round of applause.

Perfect, Tim. You're right on with regard to the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4! I can't remember being so taken with a performance as the one on Friday evening. Maestro Mena guided, caressed and led the orchestra to perfection, and they produced a quality of sound unlike what I have heard from them in a long, long time. I jumped up the minute it was over and screamed my head off with 'bravos' and cheers through all of the many bows by Mena and the orchestra, unlike I have ever done before except for Rudolf Nureyev in his US debut with the Royal Ballet at the old Met in the 60's. Friday's performance was one of those rare evenings in the theatre/concert hall that you will remember for a lifetime. Thank you BSO - please continue to bring Maestro Mena back year after year.

We went to the same program at Strathmore the next night and it was awesome! Anyone who loves the piano should have thrilled to the Bartok concerto and in the Tchaikovsky 4th Maestro Mena and the players raised the roof!

I heard this concert this afternoon, Sunday. It is the BEST I have ever heard the BSO play, Maestro Mena exuded passion and thorough knowledge of these works, but also stayed out of the orchestra's way much of the time. He conducted phrases, was oh so subtle in his gestures when the music called for it and had the orchestra playing exquisite pianissimi. His pacing and sculpting of the Tchaikovsky was admirable. Bravi tutti! This was a marvelous collaboration. I came away exhilarated and wonderfully exhausted! Thank you all for feeding our souls!

This concert was filled with so much passion; you wanted to have a drink of the same water that they all had to drink prior to the performance. It was one of the best performances of Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony I have ever heard. The long lines of phrasing that Mena and the orchestra created brought a whole new vision of the piece that proves its worth as such a master piece in the repertoire and Benedetto Lupo's excellent approach and musicality with the Bartok made Bartok's usual complexity seem like a simple but lyrical piece of music. Thank you BSO for such an enriching performance!

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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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