The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Mario Venzago presented a concert of familiar fare from Schubert, Strauss and Debussy, along with a keyboard concerto by Haydn. This was the second BSO appearance for Maestro Venzago, who is chief conductor of the Bern Symphony Orchestra. In today's concert, the familiar was treated to exemplary performances.

Mario Venzago © Arts Management Group
Mario Venzago
© Arts Management Group

The program started off with Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, a piece that can sound morose, or deadly-dull, in the hands of a conductor who attempts to make a "profound statement". But in reality, the profundity is all right there in the score, and the more effective performances are ones where the conductor gets out of the way and allows the music to flow naturally. Venzago's approach was clearly of this kind, and it did the symphony great favors. I was immediately struck by the bracing tempo for the first movement, giving it a propulsion I rarely hear. The near chamber-size orchestra (fewer than half the regular number of string players) responded with precision and deftness. I generally don't care for the first movement repeat, which risks over-repetition of the main themes. But in Venzago's conception, for once taking the repeat made perfect sense.

In the second movement, again Venzago emphasized the underlying architecture of the music, instead of it sounding wayward as can sometimes happen. The Baltimore horns were particularly impressive in this movement.

An even smaller ensemble was used in Haydn's Keyboard Concerto in D major, in which the BSO was joined by the Swiss pianist Oliver Schnyder. We usually hear Haydn's keyboard concerti performed on the piano, although I think they are better-suited for the harpsichord or clavichord; the reason why was evident in the first movement of this performance, in which the piano sounded too full-bodied in relation to the orchestra. Moreover, the left-hand accompaniment sometimes overpowered the melodic line, at least as heard from my seat in the hall. Schnyder's playing was seemingly effortless, and his treatment of the cadenzas in both the first and second movements was deft. The third movement, a rondo, is a real romp – a high-spirited number that's quite characteristic of Haydn's scores in which one imagines the composer had "tongue firmly in cheek".  In the end – and despite the reservations noted – it was a convincing performance, and it made a very good case for Haydn's keyboard concerti to be programmed more often on symphony concert programs.

Following intermission, the BSO was on stage in full force for two orchestral showpieces: Don Juan by Richard Strauss and Debussy's La Mer. These near-warhorses are invariably audience hits, yet their ubiquity also makes it a challenge for conductors to "raise their game" above a merely routine interpretation. Venzago came very close to doing so. Broadly speaking, his Don Juan was conventional in approach: this was big-boned, full-bodied Strauss. But what was noteworthy was the beautiful blending of all forces, with wonderful solo woodwinds in the middle section but also brass passages that fit beautifully within the orchestral tapestry. It made for an incredible wall of sound in the tutti moments, but never at the expense of proportion. It was a thrilling performance, the kind that makes you feel like you're hearing a familiar piece of music for the first time all over again.

In La Mer, Venzago took the audience on a fascinating tone journey through Debussy's three contrasting seascapes. He employed some unconventional tempo variations which nearly always worked. The exceptions were a massive slowdown at the end of the second movement (Play of the Waves) that seemed self-consciously fussy. Another tempo slowdown in the middle of the third movement (Dialogue of Wind and the Sea) was less problematic. On balance, I found Venzago's interpretation highly engaging and it clearly held the attention of everyone in the audience.

As in Don Juan, the Baltimore players produced a beautifully blended sound along with near note-perfect execution. Venzago chose to include the trumpet calls in the final bars of the work, which don't appear in Debussy's score but which the composer sanctioned, and it seems more conductors are including them these days. It works, especially when players like the Baltimore brass musicians are doing the honors. Mention should also be made of the percussion section:  never before have I seen such an array of suspended cymbals and different beaters for La Mer, all employed to masterful effect. It's rare that such study and preparation goes into performing a part that one might think is merely ornamental, but which is actually so central to getting Debussy's overall musical effect "just right".   

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