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November 16, 2012

BSO offers dynamic program of Dvorak and Brahms

There are three great reasons to hear the remaining performances of this week's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program -- Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall or Saturday night at Strathmore.

First, you will hear a vibrant account of Dvorak's Symphony No.8. Second, you will hear an extremely impressive delivery of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2.

Lastly, you will not have to sit anywhere near the rude, crude senior citizens who filled Row Y (orchestra left) behind me Thursday night at the Meyerhoff.

If there is any justice in the world, they will be confined henceforth to a maximum security twilight home, where they can only annoy each other. I've seen six-year-olds behave better at concerts than this lot, who chatted, argued, rustled, and hacked their way blithely through the evening (I wonder if the severely guttural gentleman in this mini-mob of mature miscreants finally found a spittoon).

OK, I feel better now. I just had to get that off my chest. Now, I can talk about the music.

A Brahms-Dvorak pairing works well on many levels, starting with the fact that ...

the two composers were pals. Putting these particular pieces together underlines their kindred, lyrical souls -- Dvorak's Eighth Symphony is invariably described as sunny; Brahms' B-flat Concerto is infused with its share of warming light as well.

BSO music director Marin Alsop revealed her affinity for the Dvorak score in 2008 concerts with the orchestra. This reprise found the conductor even more attuned to the romantic urgings of the music, allowing the tenderest phrases to breathe and giving dance-like passages an extra kick.

For its part, the orchestra demonstrated admirable technical snap and produced a rich, well-balanced tone. The finale, in particular, proved gripping as conductor and players meshed tightly.

The orchestra also excelled in its collaborative role during the Brahms concerto, supporting an exceptional Russian pianist in his BSO debut -- Denis Kozhukhin, who took top prize at the 2010 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels (Alsop was the conductor for the finals that year).

It's not surprising to hear young keyboard talents -- Kozhukhin is 26 -- tackle big, brawny scores like this one with aplomb. Sheer virtuosity is almost dead common these days. The rarer gifts are tonal variety and interpretive imagination.

Koxhukhin breezed through the challenges of the piece with uncanny calm and clarity, not to mention muscle for the most dramatic spots. But, all the while, he made sure that his tone never turned brittle, and he enlivened his phrasing telling, expressive coloring from the get-go. The ethereal shading he produced in the middle of the scherzo was but one example.

Alsop stayed with the soloist all the way and drew passionate playing from the BSO. Gabrielle Finck's sumptuous horn solo in the first movement and Dariusz Skoraczewski's radiant cello solo in the third were major assets in this highly satisfying performance.

The modest-sized audience made enough of a fuss after the concerto to get an encore from Kozhykhin, who obliged with an elegantly sculpted account of the Bach-Siloti B-minor Prelude. By this point, I had moved far away from Row Y (orchestra left), so the encore sounded even sweeter.

PHOTO Marco Borggreve
Posted by Tim Smith at 9:46 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop


Sounds like a U.S. Congressional committee was given free tickets in Row Y.

Tim, I was sitting somewhat near you (row T, left) on Thursday, but apparently I was just far enough away from those noisy neighbors of yours not to be distracted by them.

I enjoyed the Dvorak symphony. I agree with you about the finale, which was a thrilling ride. The orchestra whipped up bursts of energy that bordered on violence, but never went out of bounds.

I was a bit less impressed by the Brahms concerto. I thought the pianist lacked power and dynamism, although he certainly was expressive and made difficult passages look effortless, which is a sign of a skilled performer. Maybe the acoustics are partly to blame since I was sitting near the left edge and couldn't hear the piano all that well.

Also, thanks for identifying the work he played as the encore. It was a sublime way to end the evening, like a lullaby with extra hidden depths.

The acoustics can be tricky in that hall, as in so many places. I was just glad the pianist had enough power to make me forget about the menaces behind me. And I sure do agree about the encore. TIM

I felt attacked by Mr Kozhukhin's playing in the first two movements. It was brutal, not powerful. He expressed more refined feelings in the last two movements. And of course the encore was a perfect reat.

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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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