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BSO does justice to German masters

11.14.08
Stefan Jackiw
The Baltimore Sun

With the economy careening around us, there's nothing like an evening with the gold standard of rock-solid German musical stock to settle the nerves. Beethoven concertos and Schumann symphonies, at least, never lose their value, or their ability to generate interest.

There was a remarkable reminder of those qualities last night from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a program that will be paying further dividends this weekend.

It's always a wise investment when the BSO engages Juanjo Mena as guest conductor. Since his memorable debut with the orchestra in 2004, he has been a favorite with musicians and audiences alike. He can generate performances that are alive with nuance, full of warmth and personality, and he outdid himself on this occasion.

Not bothering with a podium, the Spanish conductor stood on the floor of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall stage last night, symbolically on the same level as the orchestra and, seemingly, closer than ever to them in terms of communicating artistic ideas.

It was fun to watch (Mena is quite the dancer, quite the magician with his hands), but it was even more fun to listen his refreshing takes on two well-worn scores.

For Beethoven's Violin Concerto, he had the distinct advantage of a soloist with equally keen senses, Stefan Jackiw. This violinist, then in his teens, revealed remarkable promise in his 2002 BSO debut. Today, barely into his 20s, he plays with the incisiveness and exquisite taste of an Old World, long-seasoned fiddler.

What he did with the Beethoven concerto was startling, not just because of the impeccable intonation and sterling articulation, although that certainly proved arresting - his beautifully controlled trills would alone have made the performance stand out. It was, above all, the profound beauty of Jackiw's phrasing that made this such a substantial experience.

At even the softest volume, he produced penetrating poetry; the slow movement cast quite the spell on the hall - hardly a cough was heard.

Through it all, Mena was with the violinist at every turn, ensuring as much elegance or drama as required from the orchestra. The familiar music exerted all of its power, and then some.

Jackiw granted the enthusiastic house an encore of sublime Bach.

Schumann's Symphony No. 4 found Mena every bit as attentive to detail and structural integrity. He had the music unfolding with an invigorating sweep. The propulsion in the outer movements never obscured subtle details, while the breadth the conductor allowed in the slow movement and again in the gentler sections of the Scherzo yielded deeply expressive results.

The BSO sounded totally connected to every note, and there was lots of admirable playing, particularly in the breathless rush at the end of last movement.

It's good to be reminded of how potent these classics are, and how much genius and heart they can reveal when performed so passionately.

It's good, too, to be reminded how someone like Beethoven started, what he was turning out before he became the giant we revere. To open the program, Mena offered a rarity, the Ritterballett that Beethoven wrote when he was in just into his 20s.

This dance suite has no great originality, but the conductor unleashed even more charm than the notes contain, and he had the ensemble delivering it as if it were all the stuff of genius.