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January 18, 2013

Baltimore Symphony's Rachmaninoff program features brilliant pianist Garrick Ohlsson

Longtime Garrick Ohlsson fans knew that the physically and artistically towering pianist would deliver memorable music-making with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this week. But what Ohlsson achieved in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall still surprised — and thrilled.

Long before the hit 1996 movie “Shine” got a wider audience interested in it, this concerto was firmly established in the repertoire as one of last and greatest outpourings of Romanticism, not to mention one heck of a test for even the cockiest pianist’s technical prowess.

The ultimate challenge here is to unleash the often bittersweet lyricism of the score in such a convincing and involving way that listeners find themselves swept away, no matter how many times they’ve heard the piece — or how resistant they may normally be to heart-on-sleeve emotions in music.

Consider me freshly swept. What Ohlsson did ...

was simply mesmerizing right form the start, articulating the circular principal theme with a beautifully controlled tone.

When Rachmaninoff subsequently called for power in that first movement, Ohlsson unleashed torrents of it — thunderous chords and slicing octaves that somehow never turned into a clanging assault. And when the principal theme returned for its final airing, the pianist shaded it in an even more introspective fashion, producing a haunting effect.

In the mercurial second movement, Ohlsson again balanced huge bursts of velocity with poetic, nuanced phrasing. The finale, which features Rachmaninoff’s signature device of gradually developing tension until a passionately soaring theme can reach its boiling point, inspired Ohlsson to yet another height.

His combination of fearless technique, tonal variety and expressive underlining was matched to a great degree by the BSO, with conductor Marin Alsop at the helm. In the end, the performance added up to something perhaps best described as aural sex.

The all-Rachmaninoff program opened with less familiar fare, “The Isle of the Dead,” an orchestra work composed the same year (1909) as the concerto. Inspired by a once-popular painting of that name by Arnold Bocklin, the piece is one of many that

Rachmaninoff infused with references to the ancient Latin funereal chant, “Dies Irae.” This is sober, darkly beautiful music that deserves to be better known. Alsop shaped it sensitively and drew some eloquent playing that is likely to get even more so in Sunday’s repeat performance.

The concert also includes Respighi’s rarely encountered orchestrations of five of Rachmaninoff’s “Etudes-tableaux” for solo piano. Never mind that Rachmaninoff should have done his own orchestrating. Respighi was a master colorist, and these pieces are luxuriant and atmospheric.

Placing the Etudes right after “Isle of the Dead” was not ideal — the first of those Etudes has much the same pacing, orchestral palette and “Dies Irae” thread. Alsop did not always dig deep into the music, and the orchestra did not sound entirely settled, especially in the “Marche funebre.”

Still, there was plenty to savor, including gorgeous vibrancy from the strings and some visceral playing by the brass.

The piano concerto will be discussed and performed at an “Off the Cuff” program at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Meyerhoff. The complete program will be performed there at 3 p.m. Sunday.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:57 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes


Blogmeister, have you heard anything about an injury to Ohlsson's hand during the Sunday performance? Toward the end of the Rach 3, when not playing, he was looking at his left hand. It didn't seem to affect his playing. Possibly he broke a fingernail. He played a solo encore but didn't say anything to the audience about his hand.

Have not heard anything, but will make discreet inquiries. TS

The best interpretation of 'Isle of Death' you will find in records of symphony orchestra conductor - E. Svetlanov. As far as I concern no one until this day made better understanding of this work.
All the best for BSO!

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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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