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CLASSICAL MUSIC

Saturday, March 5, 2005; Page C05

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Estonian conductor Eri Klas may have seemed an overqualified choice to lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a program of mostly "pops" bonbons on Thursday at the Music Center at Strathmore. But his easy command of this stylistically diverse program -- starting with a robust, rhythmically incisive, splendidly disciplined reading of Smetana's "Bartered Bride" Overture -- drew superlative playing from the BSO all evening.

Gershwin's Concerto in F was cheekily idiomatic, with a Hollywood sheen on the strings in all the big tunes, and a bluesy languor to the opening of the slow movement. If pianist Arnaldo Cohen's playing emphasized Gershwin's classical aspirations over his jazz roots, he gave a performance that was equal parts muscle and heart, and (like Klas) sidestepped brash display in favor of drawing maximum color from the score. The piano sound had fine focus and weight in the new hall, and carried well through the orchestra.

Klas pointed up the stoicism and melancholy underpinning all the exuberance in Copland's "Appalachian Spring" Suite, giving introspective passages time to breathe -- with concertmaster Jonathan Carney phrasing the solo violin lines more sweetly than I remember ever hearing them -- and treating the more extrovert episodes to fleet tempos and pungent coloring in the brass.

The spirit of the dance was infectiously alive in the concluding work, Tchaikovsky's "Capriccio Italien," as a particularly animated Klas leaned into the Italian rhythms and teased out delicious details of scoring.

-- Joe Banno

Imani Winds

Despite the glittering new Music Center at Strathmore next door, the charming, intimate auditorium in the neighboring old Mansion continues to be a unique venue for chamber music. Thursday night the 100-seat auditorium was a perfect showcase for the Imani Winds, five enterprising young African American and Hispanic musicians whose ensemble playing is as impressive as their choice of repertoire.

The woodwind quintet tradition dates to the time of Mozart, who first tamed the clarinet for chamber music. But all eight pieces on the program were by 20th-century composers (or, in the case of traditional material, arrangers), including five who are still living and two (flutist Valerie Coleman and hornist Jeff Scott) who play in the ensemble. Scott's work opened the program with a lively, inventive "Call and Response," and Coleman offered arrangements of two spirituals in which the instruments evoked human voices.

The highlight of the program was John Harbison's polished Quintet for Winds, whose pungently colored movements offered a carefully calculated variety of harmonic and rhythmic textures.

Also on the program, and played with devoted skill, were Falla's "Four Spanish Pieces," written for piano but perfectly at home in the quintet arrangement; Eugene Bozza's whirlwind Scherzo, Lalo Schifrin's "La Nouvelle Orleans," which evokes a funeral procession; and the lively "Danza del Mediodia," of Mexican composer Arturo Marquez.

-- Joseph McLellan


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