A Young Man’s Game: Baltimore Symphony at Strathmore, October 16, 2010

In July the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented two 15-year-old concerto soloists. Attaining such heights at such a young age requires ungodly talent and work, but others have achieved the feat — you see such youngsters pass through center stage orchestra every so often, and rarely see them again when they’re old enough to drink (legally).

On Saturday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, the Baltimoreans played under the leadership of a 17-year-old conductor, Ilyich Rivas, from the great young-conductor-producing nation of Venezuela. This seems a rarer thing, because the prodigy conductor not only has to master every aspect of a score in order to create a unified whole (and, hopefully, take an interesting point of view on the frequently performed works he leads), but also must convince, cajole, assuage, and inspire a hundred or so musicians who excel him in both experience and just plain age. I can conceive of being ready to play a concerto with a major symphony at the age of 15, if I was talented and had enough support. It baffles my mind that a 17-year-old could lead an orchestra, though one must keep in mind that I was an exceptionally immature 17-year-old.

Saturday’s program featured three works by Composers as Young Men. Johannes Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture,” which led off the evening, was the only exception, although JoBra learned the musical material for his pomp-and-circumstantial orchestration of university drinking songs when he was 20. In my opinion, the three top things needed to successfully perform the AcFest are rhythmic vitality, rhythmic vitality, and rhythmic vitality, perhaps with a side of burnished Brahmsian tone-colors. Rivas and the BSO proved more than capable, with Rivas keeping a steady, lively beat and the BSO making a clear yet luminous sound for him (after some early muddiness in the lower brass). They missed some of the over-the-top exuberance of the closing pages, but so far, so good.

Markus Groh (warning: autoplaying audio at link) joined Rivas and the BSO for Ludwig van Beethoven’s second piano concerto, whose first draft started pouring from his pen when Ludwig was a teenager. This ain’t the archetypal tortured-heroic soul Beethoven from the middle period, and both Rivas and Groh seemed unsure how to approach the unassuming first movement; it sounded prosaic rather than graceful, and nary a hint of Beethoven’s cheeky youthful humor surfaced. That is, until the cadenza, when Groh suddenly seemed to wake up and engage the music, playing with more and more intensity as it moved further and further afield. And lo, Rivas led the BSO in an appropriately intense reading of the slow movement, a little anachronistically Romantic in outlook but highly involving, with Groh taking the spur and meeting the BSO’s intensity. The finale’s skipping 6/8 rhythm gave it a little more pickup, and both Rivas and Groh seemed to enjoy letting their hair down a bit and navigating its quick twists.

In “Blumine,” a typical piece of Gustav Mahler liquor-soaked pound cake excised from his first symphony for unknown reasons, Rivas and the BSO produced a bunch of pretty noises: violins isolated above the stave sounding sweet and longing, swells and details in the winds, and of course the ever-present trumpet intoning the opening melody with gentle grace. But these sounds did not cohere into a performance of any ardor or passion; this was time-passing Mahler. (Not that I am a huge Mahler fan in any circumstance, so some redeeming aspect of this performance may have eluded me.)

Dmitri Shostakovich’s first symphony, though, showed Rivas and the BSO at the top of their game. The 18-year-old composer always liked to play provocateur, and he showed himself to be a prodigy in that right with this symphony, which has a fierce, sardonic Scherzo worthy of, well, mature Shostakovich, plus numerous grotesqueries in the melodies and wild screeches into halts that seem both gross and entirely necessary in the scheme of things. Here Rivas showed an ability to keep a potentially confusing welter of elements together and moving toward a goal, and that crisp, lively beat proved extremely helpful both in digging into the riotous finale and keeping aloft the slower melodies, particularly those played solo by associate principal cello Chang Woo Lee.

The BSO, for its part, seems especially comfortable with hard-driving modern scores where a lot is going on every second, and they gave Rivas some admirable playing. Shosti’s first isn’t a young man’s game exactly, but it was good to hear a young man’s take on it. I both greatly enjoyed this and the Brahms and look forward to hearing Rivas in the future as he gets a better handle on certain aspects of his chosen profession. He’s got a lot of time to learn.

SETTING THE BAR TOO HIGH

Groh played an encore after the Beethoven concerto, announcing that it was his “wedding day” (I assume he meant anniversary, given that he was working Saturday night) and that his wife was in the audience, and proceeding to play Brahms’ Intermezzo Op. 117 no. 1 for her, kindly allowing the rest of us to listen in. This immediately made all attached males in the audience into unromantic slackers, in their mates’ eyes. We need a new Man Law #117.1: No giving life partners unrealistic ideas about what to expect when anniversaries roll around. Play your Brahms for your lady in private.

Other People’s Perspectives: Tim Smith (reviewing Thursday’s performance at Meyerhoff). Updated to add Alfred Thigpen (reviewing Saturday’s performance).

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