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February 1, 2013

Tortelier fires up Baltimore Symphony in works by Hindemith and Mussorgsky

Every visit by conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier seems to ignite the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Audiences get pretty worked up, too.

Tortelier is back this week with a program that includes Mussorgsky's perennial "Pictures at an Exhibition" and a much rarer sampling of the Hindemith work list, the bracing Concert Music for Brass and Strings.

In between, some comforting Mozart -- Piano Concerto No. 27, featuring another welcome returning guest artist, Orion Weiss.

I had the most fun Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall during the Hindemith at the top of the concert. For one thing, this fascinating composer does not get much attention these days. For another, this particular score has ...

a potent muscularity that Tortelier flexed persuasively.

The conductor kept the pacing taut and ensured that the multiple melodic lines emerged clearly. If the last note lacked the ultimate in impact, that was partly the fault of Hindemith; his habit of wrapping things up with a straightforward consonance, no matter how spicy the harmonic action preceding it, can get anticlimactic.

Remaining performances are likely to be smoother, but this was still impressive music-making. And it sure was fun to hear enthusiastic cheers and whistles from the audience on Thursday. Who knew there were Hindemith fans in this town?

The brass players, who delivered some vibrant waves of sound in the Concert Music, stepped up their game in the Mussorgsky classic. They gave the deep, dark chords in the "Catacombs" section a wonderful, menacing presence, and they were more than ready when the "Great Gate of Kiev" loomed in the finale.

Admirable contributions came from the rest of the orchestra -- terrific sparks in the "Tuileries" and "Unhatched Chicks" passages; smoky sax solo by Steven Temme in "The Old Castle," etc. -- as Tortelier fashioned an invigorating visit to Mussorgsky's sonic gallery. The performance, conducted form memory, had a remarkably spontaneity and sweep.

The Mozart concerto was rather dwarfed in this context, perhaps more than necessary, since Tortelier cut the orchestral forces down considerably. I'm all for trying to achieve historically appropriate balance in the presentation of 18th -century repertoire, but, after all, a modern grand piano is not exactly historically appropriate.

Weiss, who has given extraordinarily fresh and nuanced accounts of concertos by Grieg and Ravel with the BSO over the years, seemed a little faceless this time around. Articulation was pristine, phrasing elegant, but I would have welcomed a more distinctive stamp.

Tortelier provided proficient partnering. And, aside form some scrawny sounds from the violins, the ensemble held up its end of things nicely. The woodwinds, in particular, produced a colorful glow.

Remaining performances are Friday night at the Meyerhoff, Saturday night at Strathmore.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:07 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: 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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