George Mason University’s Center for the Arts has a long history of booking foreign orchestras on a wing and a prayer. Many we’ve never heard of, and some were making their U.S. debuts. There have been scrappy-sounding assemblages (if they were true, preexisting orchestras at all), worthy second-tier groups and, occasionally, diamonds.
Over the weekend, the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn was one of the gems.
Formed more than a century ago in the city of Beethoven’s birth, this fine ensemble offered sleek, bracing renditions of an overture, a concerto and a symphony by its namesake on Saturday evening. Under music director Stefan Blunier, the BOB is a highly responsive instrument (at least the members who came over — about three-fourths of those listed in the orchestra’s roster). The strings have both bite and sheen, the basses and first violins fitting perfectly together. The two horns were fallible, but the woodwinds all offered colorful solos (particularly the principal oboe) and superb blend.
For the most part, Blunier has instilled an admirable, natural sense of balance in the orchestra. By the end of the Seventh Symphony, the winds and brass were perhaps a little tired and began to overblow; until then, however, the textures were outstanding, the strings always audible, even in fortissimo tutti passages. In performance, Blunier can come across as a self-styled Byronic hero, but the posturing got results, and he knew when to simply get out of the way. The performance often felt like chamber music.
In the G-major Piano Concerto, Louis Lortie didn’t always take full advantage of the detailed framework that the orchestra gave him. He put in unnecessary metrical accents (perhaps a holdover from working with other groups) and could have offered an even wider dynamic range. Still, he is a fine musician, and there were many original touches in the big cadenza.
Battey is a freelance writer.