Mario Venzago is possibly the most beloved guest conductor in BSO history. On stage this Friday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore, the diminutive Swiss sometimes resembled an elfin force of nature. He seems to create his interpretations as he conducts, indicating completely unexpected inflections, but always in the spirit of discovery rather than calculation. In the antiseptic world of classical music, one can easily understand why he’s beloved.
This is why the concert’s first half was such a disappointment. One would think that Venzago, leader of so much great Mozart and Schumann, would be an ideal conductor for Schubert’s Fifth Symphony. He may well be, but the nuanced performance indicated with his baton was far from the tentative, unrefined one we heard.
We then were treated (or subjected) to a performance of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto -- a seminal 20th century work. The Latvian soloist, Baiba Skride, is clearly a major talent. Skride obtains a thick tone that is both lush and aggressive. Furthermore, unlike yesteryear’s virtuosi, she viewed the orchestra as equal partners. But her accompaniment was far too bland, resembling Lawrence Welk’s musicmaking as much as Arnold Schoenberg’s.
And yet the second half sounded like a completely different concert. Venzago spoke, quite movingly, about the orchestra’s concern for Japanese colleagues. We then heard a gorgeous orchestration of a Japanese folksong: The Moon Over The Ruined Castle - by longtime bassist and in-house arranger, Jonathan Jensen.
Almost without a pause, a not to be forgotten performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony followed. Here was the Venzago long-cherished, following Beethoven’s light speed metronome markings, but with a freedom of tempo most musicians think impossible at such high speeds. So many passages seemed reconceived in the moment as though Beethoven were a bebop jazzman. Venzago merely had to lift a finger and an entire string section would change the character of its phrasing and dynamics. The ovation which followed was enthusiastic even by the uncurbed standards of Baltimore. A musician as spontaneous as Venzago is necessarily erratic, but hearing him at his best is always worth sitting through less than that.
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