-- Musical life in the Washington area, already rich and various, is about to become even more interesting.
After the new Strathmore Concert Hall opens its doors in February, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will play weekly concerts there. This will not only give the National Symphony Orchestra direct competition for the first time in its 74-year history, but will make the capital region the only place in the country that offers listeners a steady choice of subscription concerts from two large ensembles week in, week out, throughout the season.
Public comment from the NSO on this forthcoming "battle of the bands" has been polite and affirmative. Still, the thought of another orchestra playing as close as North Bethesda -- right in the heart of suburban subscriber-land (with free parking to boot) -- must inspire some occasional anxiety within the hallowed halls of the Kennedy Center.
And with good reason, for the Baltimore Symphony is a fit competitor, as it proved handily in its opening concert of the 2004-05 season Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall in Baltimore. Music Director Yuri Temirkanov is conservative in his tastes but distinctly individual in his expression. He took what might have been a platter of thrice-warmed chestnuts -- Schumann's Piano Concerto in A Minor and the ubiquitous Symphony No. 1 in C Minor by Johannes Brahms -- and made everything fresh and new.
In this, he had considerable help from pianist Helene Grimaud, who combines a keen intellect, a lustrous tone, immaculate technical command and reserves of physical strength that are never employed to bludgeon. The entire concerto grew organically from the prayerful opening melody, which Grimaud played soulfully but with a welcome refusal to swoon over it. Indeed, she is unusual among pianists in that her interpretations are both passionate and sensible, a Gallic wit and worldliness happily restraining any temptation to toss back her head and roll her eyes heavenward. All was cool, clear, unsentimental, proportionate. The beauties of this concerto are known and acknowledged, but never have I heard it sound so terribly smart.
The Brahms First Symphony is dangerously overplayed. I say that not to defame a masterpiece but merely to note that finding it on an orchestral subscription series is about as surprising as finding a free spot on a bingo card. It is played practically every year, by practically every orchestra, and one has often come away from a performance feeling that conductor and musicians have done little more than reflexively fulfill a mysterious annual duty.
Not so on Friday. From the celebrated anxiety attack that opens the score -- heartbeat timpani beating away furiously in the throat of the strings -- through the hymnlike finale, the symphony was charged with a sense of wonder and discovery. It was in no way an eccentric performance: Temirkanov's tempos were neither fast nor slow, and he made no attempt to re-compose what Brahms had already wrought so majestically. Rather, what made this interpretation so moving was the sense that the conductor and his forces had found a common understanding of this symphony and were now struggling together to create the most flexible and harmonious performance possible. This was no "run-through" -- the results clearly mattered to everyone concerned.
Temirkanov will step down as Baltimore's music director at the end of the 2005-06 season, the same time that Leonard Slatkin's contract as music director of the NSO expires. (The question of renewal has not yet been addressed.) This may prove a period of great change. Still, whatever may happen at the NSO, come February there will be two major orchestras playing in and around the Washington area and our audiences cannot help but be the richer for it.