Despite some standout playing, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra struggles at cohesion

July 25, 2014

Summer is a difficult season for orchestras. The conventional wisdom is that audiences become less interested in listening to symphonic repertoire indoors, so orchestras often go foraging for them, in nontraditional venues and with gimmicks like pops concerts and movie and video-game scoring. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has tried with some success to buck that trend, presenting traditional programs at Strathmore throughout the summer; Thursday’s all-Beethoven concert had healthy attendance and a long, enthusiastic ovation at the close.

The night was far from an artistic triumph, however. There was little cohesion onstage, with many of the BSO principal players absent and subs in every section. The winds were ill-blended (the horns, sitting right against the back wall, often dominating) and wind-string intonation was problematic all evening. Principal oboist Katherine Needleman’s imperturbable artistry stood out glaringly against the woodwind colleagues she was thrown in with.

Guest conductor Josep Caballé-Domenech, making his BSO debut, offered lots of energy but only modest depth. He rides the orchestra more than he leads it. In the “Pastoral” Symphony, the tempo transitions in the scherzo were clumsy, and the finale meandered with little sense of narrative; the climax at the end felt almost like an afterthought. There were some nicely drawn textures in “By The Brook” — the solo cellos audible for a change and the gentle woodwind dissonances toward the end just right. But overall, this was a forgettable performance.

Pianist Andrew Staupe, also making his BSO debut, had a good outing in the C minor concerto. He is a fastidious player, whose imagination takes wing when playing alone. He does not yet make a lot of impact when playing within the orchestral texture, as the finest artists do, but he has the keyboard skills to forge a strong career.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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