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Performing arts: The Baltimore Symphony, Conrad Tao, the BBC Concert Orchestra

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-- Robert Battey

MUSIC

BBC Concert Orchestra

The BBC Concert Orchestra made a stop on its whirlwind American tour at the George Mason University Center for the Arts on Saturday night. This group is both a classical and pops ensemble, having played a concert backing up Neil Diamond, for example, just before leaving for the United States. The looming cuts to public arts funding in Great Britain, part of the British government's drastic attempts to cut its fiscal deficit, may put this innovative group in danger.

Keith Lockhart, the new principal conductor, is leading two alternating programs on this tour, including the all-Russian one heard in Fairfax. The first two pieces sounded underrehearsed and pedestrian, perhaps reflecting the ensemble's punishing tour schedule -- 15 cities in 20 days. The woodwinds sagged a bit in Balakirev's "Overture on Three Russian Folk Songs," the tone going sour in exposed places. Likewise, the violins sounded out of sorts in Prokofiev's First Symphony, scratching their way through the coy theme of the first movement and missing the grace of its alternation of very high and low notes.

The musicians redeemed themselves, however, with a vividly colored performance of Stravinsky's stripped-down 1919 version of the "Firebird" Suite. Opening with the muted rumble of bass drum and almost soundless low strings, this was a performance with soft, pastel moments that made the rip-roaring sections stand out as even more viscerally exciting because of the rock-solid rhythmic unity.

The second half, Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, was not exactly a disappointment, because of a dynamic, competition-ready performance from solo pianist Ilya Yakushev, but musically it felt deflated by comparison to the Stravinsky.

-- Charles T. Downey


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