Monday, July 14, 2008

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Fascinating intersections between highbrow and lowbrow music have surprised listeners for centuries; Bach, for instance, wove a catchy pop melody into his "St. Matthew Passion."

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concocted a potent little high-low mixture itself Friday at Meyerhoff Hall in Baltimore. Concertmaster Jonathan Carney and BSO string players presented eight seasons, interweaving Vivaldi's venerable "Four Seasons" with the tango-infused "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires" by Astor Piazzolla.

Piazzolla's music itself is a hybrid, blending lowbrow tango (rooted in Buenos Aires's seedy suburbs) with highbrow splashes of Bartók and Stravinsky, transforming Argentina's traditional dance into something dressed for the concert hall.

Since his death in 1992, Piazzolla's revamped tango has caught fire with both jazz players and hard-core classical musicians -- and, apparently, music lovers in Baltimore. They cheered wildly for violinist Carney, whose energetic, elegant playing was showcased all evening.

Beginning with "Spring," Carney and company alternated between Vivaldi's colorful concertos and Piazzolla's steamy tangos, brilliantly arranged by Leonid Desyatnikov.

The Vivaldi was solidly yet politely played. "The Four Seasons" contains ferociously evocative music, and a more risk-taking performance would have made the connection to Piazzolla's "Seasons" (which contains Vivaldi quotations) even stronger.

Yet there was much to delight in: big moments, when Carney's lightning-bolt runs capped off the storm in Vivaldi's "Summer," and subtle scenes such as the harpsichord delicately tiptoeing through dreamy, muted strings in "Autumn's" portrait of snoozing drunkards.

Carney and his players seemed more energized each time they switched to Piazzolla. "Autumn," with its smoldering melancholy, showed the ensemble at its best, from the percussive scraping sounds and whiplash sliding notes to cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn's luscious solo and Carney's catalogue of violin special effects.

-- Tom Huizenga

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