A brave face and a good performance

Sunday’s Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert at Strathmore came against a backdrop of something close to an existential crisis. Just weeks after announcing a summer season of attractive, broad-appeal concerts (such as a live-scored “Harry Potter” movie, and a performance by Broadway and jazz star Leslie Odom Jr.) and days after Maryland’s legislature authorized a bill granting the BSO $3.2 million in emergency relief to help restructure a deficit and refocus its fundraising, the BSO cancelled the entire slate and announced that musicians wouldn’t be paid after June 16. They did this in the midst of ongoing negotiations for a new multi-year contract with the musicians, for which management has proposed shrinking the season by twelve weeks, amounting to a 20% salary cut.  

An institution’s management has the responsibility of keeping the institution solvent, and the BSO’s money problems are indeed severe. But the draconian solutions put forward will severely degrade the product onstage, and the orchestra’s decline will snowball as the better musicians leave and contributors have less reason to give. All this was handed to the players hours before their Thursday concert at Meyerhoff Hall. That night, as on Sunday at Strathmore, the musicians waited in the wings until curtain and came on together, in a gesture of solidarity. A message was read by a member of the players’ committee expressing their dismay and their hope for a palatable outcome. Interestingly, Music Director Marin Alsop stood next to the speaker, silently giving her endorsement to the players’ position. It is exceedingly rare for a conductor to involve him or herself in contract negotiations with the musicians, but Alsop clearly understood what is now at stake. If management’s proposed contract is implemented, she will be leading an orchestra on the brink. A good discussion of the situation, from an outside observer, is here.

All that said, the onstage vibe on Sunday was surprisingly positive; whatever the musicians were feeling, they smiled at one another and played with good focus and energy. The program was relatively brief, consisting only of the Brahms/Schoenberg G minor Quartet and the Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto.  I’ve never warmed to Schoenberg’s garish, sclerotic orchestration of this early chamber music masterpiece of Brahms for piano and string trio. With tuba, contrabassoon, timpani and four percussionists augmenting the usual symphonic forces (but no harp to even approximate the piano figurations), the result is a goulash with too many herbs and spices obscuring the basic ingredients. None of the German masters had the feel for orchestral transparency of a Ravel, Stravinsky, or Respighi, and this pastiche is among the most glaring examples. Alsop conducted with what felt like increased urgency and fervor, but untangling the knotted layers of sound would have been beyond even a much finer maestro. I noticed and appreciated some virtuoso clarinet playing here and there, but the overall effect was fog.

Lukáš Vondráček essayed the “Emperor,” in place of previously-announced Andre Watts. This fine artist, in his early 30’s, is full of ideas and has the fingers to express them. The rubato in the three opening cadenzas was creative to the point of re-writing, but I think Beethoven would have approved. There was no showboating though; Vondráček moved to the background the instant there was a leading melody in the orchestra. He is alone, in my experience, in grasping that the piano is essentially just filigree to the orchestra for entire first half of the development section. His trills – fast, even, and opaline – were wonderful, and his dynamic range tested Strathmore’s Steinway. If I were to criticize, it would be that his expressive palette is so full that the basics of structure sometime takes a back seat. His entrance after the big opening tutti had no consistent pulse and he simply ignored Alsop’s tempo in the Adagio, going his own way as soon as he entered. Schumann’s Arabeske was a lovely encore, but again, the dreaminess came at the expense of a steady, stable flow. Alsop and the orchestra collaborated with skill and affection.  

Lukáš Vondráček. Photo by Ivan Korc.

Lukáš Vondráček. Photo by Ivan Korc.

The BSO’s final Strathmore performances this season are the Mahler Ninth Symphony on June 8, and a live-scoring of “West Side Story” on June 15th.  The future looks exceedingly grim after that; there is at present no realistic scenario that would lead to anything positive for the orchestra this fall.  

Above photo: still from the film “Atlantic.”