MSO thrives in opening act

October 21, 2002|by SCOTT BEARD

Celebrating the opening of its 21st season, the Maryland Symphony Orchestra offered a concert of masterworks from the Germanic repertoire by composers J.S. Bach, Felix Mendelssohn and Ludwig von Beethoven.

Music Director Elizabeth Schulze was prompted to choose this program when she learned that the mayor and members of the city council of Wesel, Germany, Hagerstown's sister city, would be on hand to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that association.

With the common thread of "reformation" running through Sunday's program, one was struck immediately by a marked improvement in the overall sound of the orchestra. The orchestra performed more as one as the audience listened to a group that had a more homogenized sound, improved intonation and sense of purpose.

The concert opened with a chorus from Bach's Cantata No. 80, "Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is Our God)." Joined by the Frederick (Md.) Chorale, under the direction of Nancy Roblin from the keyboard, Bach's intensely personal harmonization of Martin Luther's hymn set the tone for the evening.


The Frederick Chorale sang with conviction, executing clear entrances with expert support from the orchestra. Perhaps most impressive from the chorale was its clean passagework on the intricate runs of the piece. Bravo to the trumpet section for its excellent intonation on all of those treacherous high notes.

The cavernous acoustics of the stage perhaps demanded a bit more precision from the singers in regard to diction and ensemble with the orchestra. Here is a clear example of Schulze's excellent work in bringing local musicians and ensembles to The Maryland Theatre stage.

The highlight of the evening had to be the orchestra's performance of Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony. Written when Mendelssohn was only 20, his skill at crafting a work full of colorful shifts of timbre and mood is evident throughout. An admirer of Bach's music and baptized a Lutheran at the age of 7, he must have been very familiar with the hymns of the Lutheran church.

In their performance, Schulze and the orchestra established immediately that they were about to embark on a musical journey with a seriousness of purpose. While Schulze always brings a sense of total commitment and exuberance to her performances, the orchestra also rose to the challenge, performing on a deeper level than I've heard in the past.

Their convincing performance of the first movement was filled with wonderful changes of color that were accomplished deftly. The second movement may have started a bit too loud and sluggish, with the orchestra not matching Schulze's buoyant beat. However in the second section of the work and at the return of the opening material, the orchestra was one with Schulze, carrying the audience along with them. What a wonderful moment of complete musical unity.

The third movement led seamlessly to the finale, with its majestic statement of the chorale theme, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God." Schulze and the orchestra conceived this performance with a great sense of drama and architecture. It was truly a delight to hear. Kudos to the fine wind soloists, and particularly principal clarinetist Beverly Butts, whose buttery tone was on display throughout the evening.

The program closed with Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, known as the "Emperor." Like Mendelssohn, Beethoven was also an admirer of Bach's music, having studied many keyboard works by Bach as a child. The skillful way Bach combined many voices must have set a fine example for the young Beethoven.

The "Emperor" concerto is so called because it is an expansive work that is unabashedly virtuosic, while at the same time containing moments of great poetry. Here Beethoven fully explores the resources of the piano, weaving its material expertly into the musical fabric of the full orchestra.

The soloist for the Beethoven, Ursula Oppens, is one of those unique pianists who is equally at home in the the avant-garde and mainstream repertoires. An active performer and recording artist, she is one of the most recognized figures on the contemporary music scene.

Oppens captured the virtuosic elements of the piece, performing with great flair and sparkle.

At times, the louder passages in the first and third movements seemed a bit too percussive, perhaps due to the piano used at the performance.

To be sure, the audience found the MSO in its third decade, thriving in its quest to bring live, quality classical music and outstanding soloists to our area.

Scott Beard is a music professor and coordinator of keyboard studies at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

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