The Baltimore Sun
October 2, 2004
Music Review

BSO spends a night in the gardens of Spain

By Tim Smith, Sun Music Critic

You can bank on something magical happening whenever Mario Venzago is a guest on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's podium.  He proved it again last night in a program tailor-made to such a masterful musical colorist.

Spain provided the concert's unifying theme, but the main work was Spanish twice removed – music by Frenchman Georges Bizet, mostly from his opera Carmen, as transmuted (or deconstructed) by Russian Rodion Shchedrin into a ballet score for strings and percussion.

Venzago didn't miss a single shade of the brilliant tonal palette.  But he went far beneath the surface to produce a palpable drama, full of searing emotions, undercurrents, insinuations.  The result was more gripping than a lot of performances I've sat through of the original operatic Carmen.

Concern for dynamic gradations, especially all the pianissimos and the final fadeout, paid off terrifically.  So did Venzago's way of building toward a lyrical climax, notably in the Adagio.

The BSO strings poured on the warmth, while timpanist Dennis Kain and percussionists Christopher Williams, John Locke, Brian Prechtl and Karen Haringa handled their duties with considerable sensitivity.

Manuel de Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain, a sort-of piano concerto overflowing with atmosphere and sensuality, benefited from Eduardus Halim's lithe keyboard work, Venzago's attentiveness and the ensemble's smart response.  The performance shimmered.

Venzago relished the prism of orchestral sounds in Alborada del gracioso by Maurice Ravel who, like Bizet, had an uncanny knack for writing music authentically Spanish in temperament.  The work's beguiling and downright explosive characteristics emerged fully.

The only disappointment last night was the attendance.  It didn't look as if there were many more people in the hall than there were onstage.  I hope things pick up tonight and tomorrow.  This concert certainly deserves the attention.

Halim opened with Schumann's magnificent C Major Fantasia, Op. 17, a towering work full of technical and poetic complexities.  The fantasia seemed as though it might be new to Halim, as he appeared to be testing some details of pedaling and his touch was not entirely even or exacting.  Yet from an emotional standpoint, the pianist was completely settled and sure of himself, able to communicate a weighty concept of the work.  Here his playing was highly polished and reflective of a thorough musical understanding.

The remainder of the program was beautifully tailored from all angles.  Scriabin's futuristic Sonta No. 9 and the two sets of etudes flanking the intermission – Scriabin's Op. 65 and Chopin's Op. 25 – were concisely and handsomely delivered.  Halim embraced the pianistic quality of the Scriabin with consummate skill and achieved a striking tone and coloration throughout.  The Chopin was lyrical and fluid, with elegant finger work and fine artistic carriage.  – Kate Rivers