Last night's Baltimore Symphony concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was programmed like a revue. The only missing aspect was Ed Sullivan assuring the audience that it was indeed witnessing -- and experiencing -- "a reely big shew."
The listeners might have needed some prodding, as their applause -- with the exception of the concluding Brahms -- was tepid, to be charitable. But it could be argued that that was the most reasoned response to the stimuli coming from the stage.
Despite a solid, representative selection of works by composers spanning the 18th to 20th centuries, despite the superstar status of soloists Isaac Stern and Peter Serkin and the burgeoning reputation of conductor David Zinman, the performance left the impression that to enjoy great art, one must endure stretches of boredom or indifference.
One reason may be that the virtuosity of the soloists leaves little to error or chance; predictability rules out surprises, good or bad. And because the audience knows what to expect, it pays less attention to what it hears.
Last night's overall performances, while correct, were uninspired. Only the performance of Alban Berg's Chamber Concerto for Piano and Violin With 13 Wind Instruments proved feisty and provocative; J.S. Bach's Concerto No. 1 in A minor for Violin and Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor were less so. While there was little about which to quibble, there was nothing to write home about either.
What hasn't already been said about Stern during his 47 years of performing? The Kennedy Center and Albert Schweitzer Music Award winner, National Council on the Arts founder, Carnegie Hall president, recording artist, legendary violinist and all-around cultural force dominated the concert's first half. All the Stern trademarks were evident, from the pure, vibrant tone of the strings to his considerable technical expertise and informed interpretations.
Accompanied by members of the string section and harpsichord, Stern opened with Bach's three-movement work, with its bright triplet rhythms. He was subsequently joined by pianist Serkin and the orchestra's winds for the Berg, which was written in 1925 as a 50th birthday gift to mentor Arnold Schoenberg.
If the concert had any one underlying theme, it was that Zinman tried to convince the listeners that good things come in threes. Three works were played, each with three movements; the Berg especially capitalized on this symbolism. The work's opening "Motto" consists of three overlapping ideas sounded by three instruments, and there are three musical forces employed in the body of the concerto, three types of harmonic structures used, etc., etc., etc.
Berg's work must be listened to with Zen-like concentration. The lucid, insightful performance rewarded those who exercised their ears, minds and hearts, in that order.
Zinman led the full orchestra in a sensible, straightforward reading of the Brahms, with Serkin at the keyboard, for the concert's conclusion. Serkin was plagued by a slightly out-of-tune piano, which he tried adjusting during the angst-ridden first movement. Serkin seemed to approach the composer's ideas as if they were Play-Doh, ready to be molded into familiar and pleasing shapes. He played with his customary fervor and precision.