Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times?

Sam Shirakawa paid a visit to Baltimore on Thursday evening. His squib follows:

Baltimore Symphony Concert - 5 March

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...”

Who wrote that? Ah, yes. Charles Dickens. Even as the nation and the world now flounder in the midst of ever worsening times, it's the best of times for concertgoers in some cities who seek a thrifty cultural fix.

Take attendance at the Baltimore Symphony, for example. Only a handful of seats went begging on Thursday night (5 March) at the Symphony’s handsome home Meyerhoff Hall, thanks in part to last-minute scaled down pricing. An interesting program led by Jun Märkl also prompted queues at the box office: Stravinsky’s ballet Apollo -- finished in 1928, a year before the Great Market Crash -- and Mozart’s Requiem (K. 626) -- left unfinished at the time of his untimely death in 1791 at age 35. As an apparent nod to our parlous economic times, the orchestra performed the former without dancers; the latter without a casket.

A lip blip at an exposed juncture made Stravinsky’s U-turn from rampant Romanticism to the rigors of classicism a bit more, well, angular than usual. But the orchestra, soloists and the Baltimore Choral Arts Society under Tom Hall were in unison for the Requiem, freeing Märkl to illuminate in glowing terms Mozart’s valedictory view of a new order of classicism.

Contributing to the glow were the uniformly gifted young vocal soloists. Despite a gaffe or two in placement, Christine Brandes’ warm vocalism served her well in her orisons. I couldn’t help wishing that Mozart had composed a larger part for the mezzo, because the cocoa in Susan Platts’ lower register produces the kind of ear candy that makes you crave more. Tenor Roger Honeywell is well known to those who’ve heard him at the Met in Doctor Atomic. His voice is as sweet as the first part of his surname suggests. How well and how deeply it develops remains to be heard. Timothy Jones received the biggest hand among the vocalists, and I suspect what elicited the spike was the smokey gray grain in the timbre of his voice.

The maestro of the evening, though, was Jun Märkl, who currently presides over L’Orchestre de Lyon and the MDR Symphonie of Leipzig. While he’s appeared with most of the major orchestras and opera companies in the United States since his successful Met debut in 1999, he’s among many outstanding conductors the Met has ignored. The one remaining gap in his resume is a gig with the New York Philharmonic. In an age of cyberspace concert going, though, he could ostensibly delay his return to the Big Apple indefinitely. After all, his ascension last year to Music Director of the MDR Orchestra has given him a powerful world-wide bully pulpit and places him in an unique position in the pantheon of current music directors. Why? The MDR Symphonie Orchester is an unjustly underrated ensemble and a media orchestra, unencumbered by the exigencies of tradition under which blue-chip German musical institutions such as the Gewandhaus and Berlin Philharmonic labor.

Pace somnambulistic German bureaucracy, Märkl can make the MDR Symphonie into what he wants, and he has been handed a golden opportunity at a critical historical juncture where the need for cultural sustenance follows only the demand for housing, food and basic services. No conductor since Toscanini at NBC on the eve of World War II has had such potential for international cultural enrichment handed to him -- and he didn't have the internet. Whether Märkl has the ambition, will and vision to lead such an organization according to the social imperative of our time is the question now before him in this our age of foolishness, our season of Darkness.

The program is being repeated Friday in Wye Mills (6 March), Saturday evening in Strathmore (7 March) and Sunday in Baltimore (8 March) afternoon. If you live in or near Baltimore, turn off the utilities and go.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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