Review: Jiri Belohlavek leads Baltimore Symphony at Strathmore

Shai Wosner
Washington Post

By Cecelia Porter

Music from central and Eastern Europe is popping up everywhere these days, much of it already in the standard repertoire. Besides the Kennedy Center’s ongoing festival, “Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna,” concerts focused on these three cities have spread beyond the center. Such was the case Saturday, when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra played (to a full house) at the Strathmore concert hall. Apparently by sheer coincidence, the Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek led the BSO in works by Dvorak and Janacek (Prague), Kodaly (Hungary) and Beethoven (yes, he was German but rose to stardom in Vienna). Belohlavek is chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

All in all, the evening proved exciting and memorable because of the rapt interaction between Belohlavek and the BSO, which responded instantaneously to every stroke of his baton. From the opening of Dvorak’s familiar symphonic poem “Carnival Overture,” it was immediately evident that the conductor grasped the music’s essential impulsive temperament: speed-of-light fluctuations between boisterous, compelling dance rhythms and slower sections sliding along from one delayed beat to another. Pastoral images of the Czech countryside came to life in Belohlavek’s hands.

Israeli-born pianist Shai Wosner came on stage for Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58. His opening notes immediately revealed his Schubertian way of gently coaxing resonant lyricism from the keyboard, and his phrasing was elegantly defined. Belohlavek precisely answered Wosner’s delicate manner with muted pastel tone colors voiced by woodwind solos.

For Kodaly’s “Dances of Galanta” (more passionately played than the NSO’s recent account), Belohlavek underscored the wild temperament of Hungarian folk style with its tantalizing gypsy style of ever-shifting tempos and furiously intoxicating accelerandos. The audience was mesmerized.

Belohlavek connected all the dots in Janacek’s motivically fragmented “Taras Bulba,” a captivating three-part tale of violence and tragedy, ranging from a languorous, bittersweet elegy to an insane urgency with the emotional impact of his operas. Unfortunately, the orchestral brilliance was somewhat marred by the hall’s wimpy electronic organ.