Sean’s BSO Concert Review

[NOTE: In 1995, I applied for the position of Classical Music Reviewer at the then-named Maryland Musician Magazine (now named Music Monthly). The help-wanted ad asked for a sample review. Although I had never written a review before, I figured “how hard can it be!” Thus, I carted off to BSO Concert with a notebook in hand and gave it a whirl. Below is what I sent in as my sample review (I did NOT get the gig, BTW).]

Virtuoso Percussionist leads BSO in exciting performance
By Sean Fenlon

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was graced with two charismatic guests in their performance Thursday evening. Guest conductor Ivan Fischer led the BSO in giving robust performances of Schubert and Richard Strauss. The real charm of the evening, however, came as Fischer accompanied (profoundly deaf) virtuoso percussionist Evelyn Glennie in a striking performance of Darius Milhaud’s “Concerto for Marimba and Vibraphone” and little known “Concert Piece for Snare Drum and Orchestra” by Icelandic composer Askell Masson.

Ms. Glennie presented the Masson Concert Piece as a heart-pumping roller coaster ride of dynamics and polyrythms with every form of drum roll imaginable. The piece could sound right at home in the middle of many contemporary orchestral pieces that feature moments of agitated snare drumming, such as Carl Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto or Fifth Symphony.

The weight of the 10 minute performance rests clearly on the shoulders of the soloist to bring a variety of colors to what is otherwise considered a colorless instrument. Ms. Glennie met the challenge with both confidence and charisma, particularly in the cadenza where she touched the soul of the audience with the lightning fast movements of her sticks. This provided a visual element of excitement and skill for the audience to absorb that is often missing from soloists of other instruments. She was rewarded with a thunderous applause and a standing ovation.

For the Milhaud “Concerto for Marimba and Vibraphone” a complete musical overhaul was required. In stark contrast to the Masson, Ms. Glennie guided her multiple mallets through a maze of pleasant swirling melodies while the orchestra provided a thoughtful and provoking accompaniment. Ms. Glennie gave each instrument its own distinct musical personality, like a one-woman drama show.

The orchestra opened their evening with Symphony No. 3 of Franz Schubert. This work, like his Great C Minor Symphony, shows a more romantic than classical side of Schubert. The fuller orchestration, however, did not keep Mr. Fischer from maintaining the joyful charm of Schubert. He gave careful attention to the subtle shadings in dynamics while keeping the tempi leaning forward, however, at times feeling somewhat hurried. The principle winds deserve a special mention for their presentation of an elegant blend in the chamber music-like setting of the Menuetto and then boldly filling the hall with their warm tones after intermission in the gigantic “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Strauss.

Long recognized and associated with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, this piece goes far beyond the opening bars that have almost become a musical cliché. This modern idiosyncrasy adds to the challenge of both conductor and orchestra in keeping the interest of the audience past the first 90 seconds of the 45 minute piece. As with any Strauss tone poem, much of the duty fell upon the principal players to carry the work through its seven major sections. The final section, “Song of the Night Wanderer,” was particularly impressive with its delicate weaving of soft violins, a lush bassoon solo by principal bassoonist Phillip Kolker, and the entire flute section in the extreme upper register without even a waiver of intonation.

The entire orchestra deserves a bravo, but concertmaster Herbert Greenberg seemed to have stole the show in the second half of the program with his violin pyrotechnics that blended in and out of the orchestral textures of Zarathustra.

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