Romantic and Romantic-er: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, February 10, 2011

Sergei Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto opened the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Thursday night concert, with Yuja Wang on the keys and Juanjo Mena on the podium. I would speculate that the audience heard its opening notes with much more excitement than it brought for Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6, which rounded out the program post-intermission. The Rach 2 has achieved its popularity on the basis of its big tunes, in between which there is also some music. Pianists sometimes rumble through this non-big-tune music with a kind of carelessness pretending to be imperiousness, attempting to make the audience as impressed with the pianists as they themselves are; other times, the non-big-tune music serves as a kind of atmospheric Romantic haze from which the big tunes emerge like ships approaching shore through a fog. Either way, everything slows down when the tunes arrive, like how Neo in The Matrix reaches a heightened plane of fighting ability and can stop time as he beats people up. I enjoy Rachmaninov’s music a lot, but the second of his piano concertos (as well as the second of his symphonies) inspires some frustrating performances.

On Thursday, though, Wang and Mena attended closely to every bar of music, both in shaping the melodic lines and producing variegated and intoxicating colors, and while the big tunes got their due, their prominence flowed naturally from the score. For example, the solo-piano opening, with a gradual crescendo of chords eventually climaxing and crashing, typically provides an occasion for dude pianists to thrash the keyboard mercilessly towards the end of the crescendo and show you what exceptional badasses they are. Wang instead increased the volume scrupulously and excruciatingly slowly, so the opening felt genuinely menacing; I confess I was waiting for a little Star Time but instead got walloped by the music. Later in that first movement, as the BSO’s lower strings accompanied melodic figuration, Mena got a spine-tingingly chilly sound from them, evoking a sere landscape in winter and reminding me (at least) that Rachmaninov is a more Russian composer than is sometimes supposed.

Wang used just a touch of rubato on her slower melodies, and Mena and the BSO followed her closely, with handoffs between piano and orchestra 99 percent seamless. When the big tunes came, she made the big tunes memorable not with agogic hesitation but by her incredible attention to the dynamics within phrases; one could almost hear the melodies breathing. As noted, she also knows how to modulate her tone colors; much the first movement came across with a chilly tone, but the rising joy of the third movement brought with it brighter sounds from the keyboard. Mena and the BSO matched her in their attentiveness, tracking her well and playing with authority; one of the joys of hearing Mena conduct the BSO is how gorgeous and focused the orchestra sounds, and Thursday’s concert was no exception to that rule.

Yuja Wang in a hot red dress

Approximately what we were seeing Thursday. By Xavier Antonnet, from Yuja's site, linked earlier

Wang also won the crowd over by wearing a bright red dress similar to the one she wears on the cover of her latest CD, what looked to be four-inch heels, and a shag haircut that reinforced how attractive she is by still looking good on her somehow. (Person behind me at intermission, to her husband: “I didn’t realize the pianist would be so beautiful!” I’m not sure whether she would have urged them to attend another concert with that info in hand.) She did not play an encore, which meant that we launched straight into Bruckner post-bathroom break.

I’m on record as not enjoying Bruckner’s music, but before Thursday, the last time I had heard a Bruckner symphony live was in 1997 (I counted), and I thought it would be a good idea to try again. I was ready to indulge him his longeurs, his habit of unhurried ruminating, and find the profundity in the unique journey his music provides.

Yet I found that, even with hope in my heart and acceptance in my head, something in my constitution is repelled by Bruckner’s music. None of his tunes is memorable in any way, and then he almost immediately abandons them anyway for passagework that takes us on harmonic journeys so extended and far-ranging that their ultimate purpose is lost.

I’m all for more super-serious Romantic music in the concert hall, but before we trot out Bruckner again, let’s give some time to Max Reger. At least he knew that he had difficulty writing a tune, so he had the sense to steal one in his very listenable Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart. Ripe textures? Check. Improbable harmonic journeys? Check. Plus you get an enjoyable fugue at the end whose subject just so happens to fit into perfect counterpoint with the theme. I’m rambling a bit here, but Bruckner rambled at me for an hour on Thursday, and frankly I still don’t think we’re even.

Other People’s Perspectives: Joan Reinthaler in the Post.


I took my girlfriend to this concert, and I cannot imagine a worse ending to a date-night concert than that symphony. I know there are some smart folks out there who are also committed Brucknerians, but this music — low on memorable tunes and distinct rhythms, high on leisurely paced explorations, at lengths that defeat attempts to intuit a structure — strikes me as a solo pursuit, something in which one might immerse oneself and, after long, ardent study, eventually come up for air. Nothing in there seems easy to share — how would you even talk about something so devoid of milestones? Plus I think my girlfriend was feeling actively malevolent towards Bruckner around the time the Scherzo music repeated, and since Bruckner was not nearby, the malevolence downgraded to annoyance and spilled on everything present, including me.

I’m reconsidering taking her to Turangalîla next month.

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4 Comments on “Romantic and Romantic-er: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, February 10, 2011”

  1. StarCityFan Says:

    Thanks for the review. I must confess that I skipped out at intermission, not so much because I dislike Bruckner but because it had been a very tiring week at work, and I’d gotten what I came for.

    Anyhow, I really enjoyed the Rachmaninoff, and just about anything else would have been a letdown. Was disappointed by the lack of an encore, though – certainly the audience wanted one.

    • Andrew Lindemann Malone Says:

      Yeah, if I’ve ever been in an audience that wanted an encore, that was definitely it. I sure wanted one!

  2. Don Ciccio Says:

    Wow, did you pick the wrong performance of the Bruckner symphony or what? Most likely your reaction would have been different if you would have been attended Christoph Eschenbach’s reading of the work – his best concert as music director so far, IMO. Where Mena was lethargic, Eschenbach was luminuous. Where Mena was langurous, Eschenbach was vigorous. Eschenbach also did a much better job with rhythms, and his was a much tighter reading.

    But I can understand your reaction: if I were new to Bruckner, the performance would not have made me a convert.

    Try the recordings of Celibidache or Keilberth. Here’s what Celi can do with the finale of the first part: look at around 5:37 for some of the greatest timpani playing ever:

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