The Baltimore Sun
Monday, July 3, 2000
Fest more festive in second concert
By Tim Smith, Sun Music Critic

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Summer MusicFest turned considerably more festive Friday evening. While the first concert two days earlier was certainly pleasant, this second installment at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall had a brighter gloss all around, a more consistently engaging quality.

The enjoyment started before the orchestral program when seven BSO players offered a suave account of Ravel's "Introduction and Allegro" for harp, flute, clarinet and strings. Despite Meyerhoff's size, the ensemble managed to create a good deal of intimacy as it explored this bittersweet, luscious score. At the harp, Eileen Mason demonstrated sureness of style and technique, bringing out the instrument's full range of seductive powers. Her colleagues, especially silken-toned clarinetist Steven Barta, got deeply into RavelÝs pastel sound world.

Something of that pastel quality carried over into BachÝs Orchestral Suite No. 2, which opened the main program. Conductor Mario Venzago led a rather soft edged account that made up in sheer elegance anything it lacked in rhythmic crispness and transparent textures. This suite, more of an extended flute concerto, proved a fitting vehicle for BSO principal flutist Emily Skala, who played with abundant polish and character.

The strings likewise revealed an expressive flair, responding beautifully to Venzago's keen interest in dynamic contrasts. Pianist Eduardus Halim, who had turned ChopinÝs F-sharp minor Polonaise, Op. 44, into a thunderous, rhythmically mushy blur during the chamber music concert, joined the orchestra for Liszt's "Totentanz." This "Dance of Death" takes the opening notes of the ancient "Dies Irae" chant from the Latin Mass for the Dead and never lets them go, subjecting them to a series of variations that generate pianistic pyrotechnics and brilliant orchestral effects.

To tell the truth, I've always found the work tedious. Downright annoying, actually. But this high-octane performance very nearly concerted me. Halim, dropping the mannerisms that had made his Chopin interpretation so silly, articulated the often fiendish solo part, with panache and purpose, making meaty statements out of even some of Liszt's most blatantly-showy passages and relishing the few reflective moments. Venzago had the orchestral side of things firmly dovetailed; the BSO produced some fireworks of its own.

The rest of the evening was devoted to prismatic pieces that filled the hall with exotic imagery. Rave's "Alborada del gracioso" and excerpts from Manuel de Falla's "El amor brujo" found the ensemble responding vibrantly to the conductor's increasingly animated direction ˝Venzago is quite a Nureyev on the podium.

Paul Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" was thankfully presented without a single reference to Mickey Mouse and "Fantasia." Instead, Venzago recited, in German, some of the original Goethe poem that inspired the music and then called on actor Stephen Schmidt to give a vivid reading of the entire ballad in English before the performance. Venzago gave the score a remarkably fresh touch, making the most of the dramatic pauses in it, and coaxed another energized effort from the orchestra. The bassoons were particularly colorful.