The BSO's Concentrated Concert

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 11, 2006

BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra plays with such tenderness and welling musicality that it makes many other ensembles seem loud and muscle-bound. On Saturday morning, the BSO offered a brief, lovely program at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, under the direction of Kwame Ryan.

Ryan would seem to be a genuine find. He grew up in Trinidad, took most of his musical studies in England and has served in important positions at the Stuttgart State Opera and the Freiburg Opera in Germany. Most recently, he conducted the English National Opera and the opening concert of the Edinburgh Festival. He is particularly well suited to the Baltimore players, whom he conducts with affection and authority.

He was well-partnered on Saturday by the pianist Markus Groh, who calls to mind such great Germanic pianists of the past as Wilhelm Backhaus and Edwin Fischer with his attention to form and his strong technique, which, however, is never employed for the sake of mere massiveness.

From the beginning of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, Groh and Ryan seemed in full harmony. The pianist took firm authority in the opening Allegro Moderato (as opposed to the softer flow of the orchestral playing) and then there was a role reversal in the strange and marvelous second movement -- a musical dialogue where the orchestra is blunt and aggressive and the piano introspective and almost pleading. Finally, piano and orchestra exploded together joyfully, happy partners, in the concluding Rondo.

The program, part of the BSO's "Casual Concerts," was introduced by Fred Child, the longtime host of "Performance Today," which has recently been dropped by NPR and taken up by Minnesota-based American Public Media. Washington's loss will be the Twin Cities' gain -- how shocking to think that we will soon have no classical radio production in the nation's capital! -- and Child managed to convey a good amount of musical information in a friendly and informal manner.

The program also included Schumann's lushly emotive Symphony No. 2. I was sorry that a work by the Estonian Arvo Part, the "Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten," which the BSO played earlier in the week, was cut to make this concert short enough to be presented without intermission. After all, the "Cantus" is only five minutes long, rarely heard and very beautiful indeed. Would the additional time really have been too much to ask?

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