Music Review: A Gala Night at Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Monday, September 14, 2009

BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra opened its season with a black-tie gala concert on Saturday night, and it was heartening to see Meyerhoff Hall nearly full for a change, especially given the poor state of the economy. (A failing budget led BSO musicians to agree to a major salary cut this summer.)

Conductor Marin Alsop delivered the sort of program expected in these circumstances -- peppy, pretty and peppered with audience-pleasing fare. She gave homage once again to Leonard Bernstein with a raucous reading of the "Candide" overture, at the edge of unevenness. A video of Bernstein working with Alsop in the 1980s, his arm around her shoulders avuncularly, reinforced the intended message of filial devotion. A rarely performed orchestral work by James Price Johnson, best known for having composed "The Charleston," was better imagined than heard. Alsop continued her outreach to all of Baltimore's residents, showcasing the African Heritage Dancers and Drummers and the lovely voice of Arielle Armstrong, a senior at the Baltimore School for the Arts.

The piano-playing showman Lang Lang gave a jaw-dropping performance as soloist in Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto. The Chinese pianist is the king of gala performances at this time of year, having opened symphonic seasons in Santa Barbara, San Francisco and Nashville just this week, all with different concertos. His performance in Tennessee meant that he arrived in the early morning and had only one rehearsal. It was therefore hardly surprising that the sense of ensemble between orchestra and soloist did not always jell, but the daring pianism on display in this most daunting of concertos was breathtaking.

-- Charles T. Downey

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