Music review: Juanjo Mena conducts BSO at Strathmore, with pianist Yuja Wang

Friday, February 11, 2011; 8:45 PM

Clocking in at just under an hour, Bruckner's Sixth Symphony is a sprawling evocation of religious yearnings and strivings, more revelatory than poetic and certainly a monument to patience. Guest conductor Juanjo Mena (recently named to the post of chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic), who led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a strikingly colored and remarkably transparent performance of the piece at the Music Center at Strathmore on Thursday, focused on the details - and did this well.

Even with the orchestra at its busiest, ornamental violin passages surfaced cleanly, wind balances were carefully gauged, and rhythmic feints and bobs spoke effectively. What didn't come across in all this, however, was the larger picture of a coherent message - of promise at the beginning and resolution at the end - and while the details were interesting, they weren't an hour's worth of interesting.

The evening's drawing card, however, was the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto, a piece that, unlike the Bruckner, has melodies that everyone can recognize and hum. Yuja Wang, a 23-year-old pianist from China, gave a thoughtful and mature reading that was far beyond her years and that managed to elevate it from the saccharine to the sublime.

For much of the first movement she lay low, operating as part of the orchestral ensemble, surfacing only occasionally (and always subtly) to bring out a sequential figure or a short phrase. The almost vocal legatos she lavished on the melodies of the second movement spoke loudly in the quietest way, and throughout, her unhurried momentum served the music beautifully. The orchestra, and particularly the winds, sounded confident if sometimes, premeditated (Wang never sounded premeditated).

It was a performance that was all about the music, not the musicians, and, in this, Wang and Mena seemed to be ideal collaborators.

- Joan Reinthaler

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