The applause was built into the music last night in Baltimore at the inaugural concert of the new Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Midway through the third movement of Morton Gould's "Housewarming," which was having its world premiere, the whole string section of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra put down their instruments and began clapping their hands.
One reason for the clapping, according to the program notes, was to try out the acoustics of the new concert hall for which the music had been composed. If it was also intended to provoke audience applause, it worked splendidly -- and it probably wasn't needed in the first place. The capacity audience was clearly in a mood to clap.
The longest and most tumultuous applause greeted pianist Leon Fleisher, who is also the associate conductor of the Baltimore Symphony and who made a dramatic return to the standard repertoire after playing with only his left hand for the past 18 years.
A standing ovation greeted him when he came onstage to play the Franck Symphonic Variations and there were two more, lasting about five minutes each, before and after he played a Chopin Nocturne as an encore. Even if the drama of the occasion had not inspired such applause, the quality of the playing earned it. Fleisher himself has said publicly that he is not yet fully satisfied with the way his right hand works after its long inactivity caused by a neurological problem. But few others would have any reservations about the way he played last night.
He was slower and more thoughtful than he used to be in some sections of the Franck. But this was a matter of maturing interpretation unrelated to physical ability or disability, as he demonstrated at the end of the work with a display of virtuoso brilliance. As for his Chopin, it was the purest of poetry. Technical problems were out of the question and the music itself rose from the keyboard with spontaneity, polish and emotional depth. Fleisher has always been the kind of musician whose mind shapes the music, rather than his hands. It is good to see that mind once again able to depend on two hands, which are among the most adept in the world.
As for Martin Gould's "Housewarming," it was a pleasant, often clever, charming -- and ultimately insignificant -- piece of music. The primary impression left after one hearing is that Aaron Copland is not the only composer who can write music in the style of Aaron Copland. This is not to accuse Gould of plagiarism; a style cannot be copyrighted, and Copland's style has become a basic part of the American approach to orchestral music. Gould has mastered it with the technical facility that is evident in everything he composes. If "Housewarming" is not likely to replace Beethoven's "Consecration of the House" Overture, which is more commonly used to open a new concert hall, it does at least offer a workable and enjoyable alternative.
The Baltimore Symphony played extremely well in both of these selections, and generated a fine sound but relatively little excitement in the tone-poem "Ein Heldenleben" (A Hero's Life), by Richard Strauss, which concluded the program. The Strauss composition, in which the heroic central figure turns out to be the composer himself, is probably the most blatent and spectacular piece of self-congratulation in the entire symphonic repertoire. This makes it appropriate, in a way, for an occasion like the opening of a new concert hall, when self-congratulation is certainly in order. It also is appropriate as a showpiece for the skills of a virtuoso orchestra and for the acoustics of a new hall. Unfortunately, the Baltimore Symphony either avoided or was unable to produce the kind of breathtaking performance that is needed to keep this sprawling piece from seeming overlong and somewhat dull. Even an orchestra as dazzling as the Chicago Symphony or New York Philharmonic can barely manage this trick, and while it is a fine ensemble indeed, Baltimore is not yet playing in that league.
In other repertoire, the same level of playing might have been very impressive. Conductor Sergiu Comissiona has developed his orchestra to a high level of total refinement and precise coordination, and it does not need the sort of muscle called for by Richard Strauss to demonstrate its musicianship.
As for the acoustics of the new hall, they are not quite perfect but nonetheless highly impressive. The evening began with a "Star Spangled Banner" in which the orchestra was joined by the Navy band and the combined sound was highly impressive. The audience sang along, and everyone seemed to know the words, which were written not far from the site of the concert hall. In purely orchestral repertoire, the acoustics showed excellent clarity and presence in the middle and upper ranges, and fine transient response at a variety of pitch levels. The bass response seemed adequate on the whole and well balanced, but from where I was sitting, the bass strings were often lacking in full impact though never inaudible. There were nine double basses working hard in the Strauss, and their presence should have been felt much more strongly. It may be that a change of position, perhaps placing them against the back wall rather than along a side wall could help. At any rate, the problem is a small one, a matter chiefly of nuance.
The opening of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall is part of a trend that is particularly evident this month, with performing arts centers opening from Toronto in the North to New Orleans in the South, from Baltimore in the East to Eugene, Ore. in the West. It would be pleasant to think that this frenzied action reflects the eternal optimism and vigor of the arts in the face of an economy that seems to be lurching toward disaster. But more likely it is a testimony to the force of inertia. Construction schedules being what they are, these centers were begun in a more optimistic time and are now carrying that optimism into the uncertainty that lies ahead. This is not a bad or inappropriate function for the arts.