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The BSO on a Very Good Night

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 26, 2007

BALTIMORE -- When the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is playing well -- and it is playing very well indeed right now under the direction of guest conductor Gunther Herbig -- it may be numbered among the great American orchestras. Thursday night in downtown's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the BSO took on works by Felix Mendelssohn, Bohuslav Martinu and Ludwig van Beethoven, and aced them all.

One of Mendelssohn's "little" symphonies -- the Sinfonia No. 10 in B Minor -- started off the evening. To call this compact, one-movement work some of the greatest music ever written by a 14-year-old is both true and insufficient. It is a lovely piece by any standard and would probably be heard more often than it is had the composer not gone on to infinitely greater things (the glorious Octet was only three years in the future). Herbig is an exemplary musician -- knowing, proportionate and never self-aggrandizing -- and the Baltimore string section played for him with lithe grace.

The Czech composer Martinu (1890-1959) is known among fellow musicians as a faintly redolent name from a distant past and not even as that to the general public. This is both unfair and unfortunate, as anybody who has had the pleasure of encountering his exuberantly melodic Trio for flute, cello and piano can attest.

Martinu's Symphony No. 6, recorded long ago by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Munch, sounds a little bit like a collaborative effort from Antonin Dvorak and Leos Janacek as it might have been orchestrated by Maurice Ravel -- a deft combination of Mitteleuropa sweet and sour that has been coated in the most caloric creme fraiche. It is a terrific showpiece for a virtuoso orchestra: The BSO soloists all seemed to be doing their best to surpass one another in elegance and depth of feeling. Yet the tension was creative and collegial rather than charged and aggressive.

The program closed with that warhorse of warhorses, Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 -- and such was the energy of the performance that it reminded a listener once again just why this piece is so popular. How radical its blunt, slashing opening statement must have sounded two centuries ago -- and it still has the power to make a listener sit up straight.

Herbig's tempos were generally brisk (he is one of the few conductors who remembers that "andante" means "walking tempo" and not "slow"), yet he made no effort to make this rendition anything other than it was -- big orchestra, big sound, big-emotion Beethoven, and all the more welcome for its hearty abundance.

The program, without the Martinu, will be repeated at Meyerhoff this morning at 11.

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