November 26, 2005


Stephen Albert: Tapioca. Lalo: Symphonie Espagnole. Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1. Baibe Skride, violin; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans Graf. Performance at Strathmore Music Center, North Bethesda, Maryland, November 25, 2005.

Starting with a paean to pudding and ending in a winter wonderland, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Hans Graf gave the audience for its latest Classical Thursdays performance plenty to be thankful for – including the fact that the concert was held on Friday so it would not interfere with the holiday.

Graf set a tone for the evening – serious music that isn’t too serious – with Tapioca by Stephen Albert (1941-1992). Created for the BSO’s 75th anniversary in 1991, this two-minute work is based on a tune once used for the orchestra’s public-radio broadcasts. It is all fluff and nonsense, sounding a bit like the opening to a Broadway show – a trifle with less substance than its namesake.

Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole is more familiar territory, but not in the way played here: by a 24-year-old, Stradivarius-wielding violinist in a bright red, spaghetti-strap evening gown. Baibe Skride is someone to watch as well as hear: she moves with the music, exchanges wry glances with conductor and concertmaster, and all the while fingers her 1725 violin (on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation) with consummate skill. The combination of instrument and performer is well-nigh irresistible.

Skride has a very even tone with substantial carrying power. Graf held the orchestra back (sometimes a bit too deferentially) to let her stay in the forefront. The first movement highlighted sweetness in the violin and the always impressive brass of the orchestra. The second was also sweet, but without being cloying, and Skride’s articulation was excellent. The third highlighted the violin’s very rich lower register and made it clear that this is music more flashy than profound. The fourth had a strong opening in brass and low strings, but then went a bit out of control and was emotionally unconvincing. Things were back on track in the finale, which had rhythmic vitality to spare and a wonderful sense of playfulness. Skride is an artist who relates as well to the audience as to the other musicians on stage: she has star power as well as musical power.

The evening concluded with Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard Symphony No. 1. This composer’s first three symphonies were so neglected for so long that it seemed as if he had written only three such works, which he had capriciously labeled No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6. The neglect is doubly surprising because the first three symphonies all have nicknames – usually a ticket to concert success. These days, No. 2 (“Little Russian”) gets occasional performances, but No. 3 (“Polish”) and No. 1 (“Winter Dreams”) rarely do.

This is a real shame, because so much of the music in these works is marvelous. Symphony No. 1 was written in 1866, when Tchaikovsky was 26, but not worked into the form in which we now hear it until 1874. It has elements of stylistic maturity and immaturity in nearly equal measure – but the measure is irrelevant except to scholars. This is a work that simply sounds splendid, and Graf and the BSO handled it very well indeed. The opening of the first movement was positively magical, and the movement itself propulsive (though a bit brass-heavy). The slow second movement – taken very slowly indeed – started as a showcase for the BSO strings, then became one for oboe and flute, intertwining to produce some of the work’s loveliest moments. This movement contains a horn entrance that can easily sound crude, but Graf and the BSO made it work.

The third movement featured a strongly rhythmic scherzo and a particularly lovely waltz-form trio – another of this symphony’s highlights. The finale began in appropriately lugubrious mode, after which Graf made the Allegro moderato more of an Allegro vivace and turned most of the movement into an out-and-out celebration. The BSO’s violas played especially well here. This G Minor symphony ends with one of the strongest affirmations of G Major to be found anywhere – a kind of tub-thumping insistence on the key that is right on the line of bombast, and sometimes over it. Graf and the orchestra went all-out for this coda, bringing the audience an altogether bracing experience – definitely a performance for which to be thankful.

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