The BSO's Freaky 'Favorites'

Pianist Yuja Wang turned in a virtuoso performance.
Pianist Yuja Wang turned in a virtuoso performance. (By Christian Steiner)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 28, 2008

BALTIMORE -- It was amusing, or bemusing, that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's most recent program (heard Friday night) was part of the orchestra's series called "Favorites," an attempt to label some greatest hits for the benefit of new concertgoers. The piece that earned it this designation was Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" -- a greatest hit, true enough. But it is also a comment on what the orchestral repertory has become that a piece this weird and warty, so category-defying, revolutionary and altogether uncomfortable (taking the listener from the gallows to a witches' Sabbath), should be presented under a rubric that seems to connote tame respectability.

The other two works on the program certainly fit nobody's definition of "favorites": Prokofiev's First Piano Concerto, a piece that's young, brash and short, and a showcase for a virtuoso; and an "Armenian Suite" by Richard Yardumian that I would bet no one in the audience had ever heard before. The inclusion of this work was probably a gesture to the composer's daughter, Miryam Yardumian, long responsible for booking the BSO's artists, who retires at the end of this season. One imagines the orchestra's programmers looking through Yardumian père's largely 12-tone output and hitting upon this very early tonal piece, written by somebody who had listened quite a bit to Ravel's orchestration of "Pictures at an Exhibition." It had a lot of brass and a lot of folk tunes.

True "favorites," though -- locally, at least -- were the program's guest artists. The conductor was Yan Pascal Tortelier, who has been a regular in Baltimore and who appeared with the NSO long before he became principal guest conductor with the Pittsburgh Symphony. Berlioz is a Tortelier calling card, and on Friday he showed why, plunging into the piece with a lusty energy (his approach not unlike that of Colin Davis) while thoughtfully delineating details at the same time. In fact, he got almost too scholarly in places, before whipping the orchestra back to new heights of volume.

The idée fixe at the symphony's heart always threatens to take over altogether, lodging in the ear every bit as obsessively and annoyingly as the composer intended (it represents the woman he idolized in real life). It was refreshing that Tortelier brought out so much life around the "idée" and emphasized the way it emerges in the strings, first as a half-formed thought, then as a more developed idea, before finally passing over to the winds, where it is twisted and turned in the course of the piece into something menacing and oppressive.

The other guest was Yuja Wang, a 20-year-old who has appeared with the orchestra before and made a spectacular recital debut in Washington in January. Comparisons to Lang Lang are perhaps inevitable: Like him, she is young, Chinese-born, educated at Curtis and a phenomenal virtuoso. And one wonders whether she will develop her talent or be satisfied with audience-pleasing fireworks -- as one wondered about Lang Lang five years ago.

The Prokofiev made a strong contrast to the performance it got in Washington with Louis Lortie last month; Wang is a virtuoso pure and simple, and danced through it with finger-blurring speed. It was exhilarating, but the performance was not as interpretatively impressive as Wang showed she's capable of presenting in January. Her two encores were showmanship pure and simple -- though they were a lot of fun for the audience.

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