Herbig in Baltimore: It's a Match

By Robert Battey
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 12, 2007

On Saturday evening, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra welcomed guest conductor Guenther Herbig at the Music Center at Strathmore. Herbig has had a long, solid career, including stints as music director of the Toronto and Detroit symphonies. He is a musician's musician, and the performance bespoke rapport and respect between him and the orchestra.

Mendelssohn's "Hebrides" Overture, one of the true gems of the literature, was led with stately assurance. The North Sea storms could have blown more violently, however; we never actually felt the danger.

Next, BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney essayed the Sibelius Violin Concerto. This was certainly a gutsy choice, as the piece is one of the most difficult and often-played works in the repertoire; many listeners likely had performances of such artists as Heifetz, Oistrakh, Perlman and Hahn in their minds.

Carney is a gifted violinist, but his efforts to say something new with the piece were puzzling. The opening featured a most peculiar combination of an icy, non-vibrato tone and syrupy slides. The first little cadenza was even odder; his phrasing went to extremes that reminded one of a rock musician impishly deconstructing a classical tune. The main body of the work was more settled and enjoyable, but Carney's technique was not quite equal to the ferocious demands of the first movement's coda and the finale's opening, both of which were effortful and out of tune.

Whatever else he is, though, Carney is not a quitter. After what would be a full night's work for any professional soloist, he then returned to his customary seat to lead Schubert's Ninth, known to orchestral string players as the "Bursitis Symphony" due to its extreme length and endless repetitive figuration. Seldom has someone so thoroughly earned his pay for a concert.

Herbig crafted a wonderful performance of the Schubert. He is an old-school maestro in some ways, but is more empowering than autocratic. Like his mentor Herbert von Karajan, Herbig sometimes gives downbeats with an upward-scooping left hand, which produces a rounder sound, and for the most part he kept the brass in check. He made all the right musical points with efficient gestures, never playing to the crowd.

While maintaining a steady tempo in the first movement, he frequently shifted the pulse between one-in-a-bar and a two-in-a-bar; the longer arc made the phrases glide. The sense of serene control particularly enhanced the coda, where the increase in tempo came without any hint of agitato -- the music simply became lighter and airier.

Herbig has not yet taken note of the wrong rhythms printed in the Andante (per the original score), but this was a minor point in a well-seasoned and deeply felt interpretation. The Scherzo was fleet with sparkling woodwinds (the clarinet section had a great night all around).

In the grueling finale, Herbig managed to impart something that is often lost -- a sense of fun. Not only did the second theme amble along with charming bonhomie, but he somehow got the musicians to relax a little in the motoric string passages. A slight loss of detail paid off with central European warmth and gemuetlichkeit. We recently heard this work with the National Symphony under its music director, and Herbig's interpretation was superior. Saturday's performance showed that when the BSO plays under a good conductor, the gap between it and the NSO is almost negligible.

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