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Hilary Hahn And Prokofiev, A Classic Match

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 19, 2005; Page C01

BALTIMORE -- With the opening of the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda earlier this month, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra now has twin hubs throughout the season -- the only such ensemble in the country with that luxury. Some of the group's programs will play first at Strathmore, then move to Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in downtown Baltimore; some will travel the other way around. This week, Meyerhoff took precedence, which means that the orchestra's current offering arrives at Strathmore tonight, with much to recommend it.

Violinist Hilary Hahn, who grew up in the Baltimore area, was a local favorite long before she became a national and then a world favorite. On Thursday night at the Meyerhoff, she was greeted as a homecoming queen. She met every expectation, offering a raptly passionate yet highly thoughtful performance of Serge Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1, under the direction of Marin Alsop.

Marin Alsop conducted with sensitivity and flair in all but the Brahms. (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra)

In general, Prokofiev divides his listeners rather sharply: He seems to be a composer that one takes to strongly or not at all. Still, I can't imagine anybody failing to respond to this lovely, lyrical concerto, which avoids both the steely sarcasm and the swooning emotionalism that sometimes seem to make up the composer's entire bag of tricks. Written in 1917 and set in three disparate yet complementary movements, the concerto demands extraordinary virtuosity from the soloist, yet must never seem a mere muscular showpiece. It is Prokofiev at his most purely classical -- not the charming faux Haydn of the "Classical Symphony" but an earnest attempt to invest traditional standards of beauty with a modernist sensibility.

It might have been written for Hahn, who combines an unfailingly sweet, yet agreeably cool tonal intensity with immaculate musical taste. We have become accustomed to young artists who hardly ever hit a wrong note; what sets Hahn apart is that she scarcely seems to think a vulgar or unmusical thought, certainly none that she shares with us. She was cheered to the rafters, and rightly so.

The program began with Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," followed immediately by Joan Tower's more recent addendum "Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, No. 1." If Tower was out to prove that women could make as much grandiose, clattering noise as men, she succeeded admirably. I'm glad Tower has a hit -- her "Fanfare" has been played by more than 500 ensembles since its premiere in 1987. Still, this deeply gifted composer has not only written better works, she has written nothing else but better works. If you changed its title, this "Fanfare" would probably never be heard again, something that cannot be said for the Copland piece.

Marin Alsop is something of an "uncommon woman" herself: along with JoAnn Falletta, Anne Manson and only a handful of others, she has managed to find a place for herself in what can legitimately be described as the "old boy's club" of classical conductors. She is currently the principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony in England, the former music director of the Colorado Symphony and a regular guest with ensembles around the world. She led the fanfares with flair and proved a sensitive accompanist in the Prokofiev. Her rendition of the Symphony No. 3 in F by Johannes Brahms was nothing very special, however -- a solid, sober run-though, with broad tempos and some agreeable swells and fades, played dutifully but without much brilliance by the Baltimoreans.

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