This concert by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under the direction of guest conductor Fabien Gabel was a reminder of the ties between Ashkenazy Jewish and Central European musical traditions, which are stronger than many people might think.The program featured just two works – the boisterous Klezmer Concerto by Noah Bendix-Balgley, and the big Fifth Symphony of Gustav Mahler. 

Noah Bendix-Balgley
© Nikolaj Lund

The concerto, subtitled “Fidl-Fantazye”, is the creation of the virtuoso violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley, whose family is steeped in the musical and dancing traditions of klezmer artists. He prepared his original version for piano which was then orchestrated impressively by Samuel Adler. Bendix premiered the concerto with the Pittsburgh Symphony in 2016 in a program that, coincidently, included Mahler Five as well. The two make a good coupling, because several of the phrases in the Klezmer Concerto are motifs lifted from the Mahler. 

The concerto is in three “dancing” movements played nearly without pause, also including improvisatory passages on the violin. As the creator of the piece, Bendix played these passages – and indeed the entire work – with great flourish and authority, including where the solo violin is paired with various other solo instruments of the orchestra, such as clarinet, flute, cello, viola. In all, his playing was technically impressive in addition to being terrifically exciting for the audience. I won’t go so far as to claim that there was dancing in the aisles, but I couldn’t have been the only person whose feet were tapping along with the rhythms. This is “crossover music” of the best sort, and Gabel and the BSO players delivered exuberant support, emphasizing the music’s charms without veering into kitsch or caricature. 

Following the intermission came Mahler's Symphony no. 5 in C sharp minor, which numbers among the three most popular of the composer’s nine symphonies; there are more than 100 concert reviews in Bachtrack’s database, second only to Mahler’s First. Mahler may not be the kind of music for which French conductor Fabien Gabel is best-known, but his interpretation of the symphony, which was both emotionally probing as well as being beautifully shaped, was mightily impressive. Standout moments were evident from the very beginning, with a Trauermarsch that wasn’t as ponderous as it can be sometimes in the hands of other conductors. Fireworks were on display in the Sturm und Drang of the second movement, but the plaintive, searching motifs that are also part of the atmosphere were likewise highly effective. I have seen this piece in concert numerous times, but I cannot recall it played so impressively as here in the opening two movements. 

The central Scherzo was treated to a deft interpretive touch, sometimes light, sometimes aggressive. While one might worry that such an approach risks trivializing the music, in actuality it worked well, and there wasn’t any hint of the “episodics” that can negatively affect the interpretations of others. As for the famous Adagietto, the gleaming, jewel-like tone of the BSO strings gave this movement a special sheen, transporting it well-beyond being merely a calm interlude between the two gigantic movements on either side of it. In the Rondo-Finale, Gabel and the Baltimore musicians once again brought all of the impressive brass and woodwinds to the fore, ending the symphony on a triumphant note. About the only thing missing from this performance was repeating the Adagietto movement as an encore; had the BSO done so, it would have been the perfect endnote to this impressive concert.