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Review | Conductor Christian Reif makes a good guest at Strathmore with BSO

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It was only moments after German conductor Christian Reif had taken the stage Thursday at Strathmore to lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra that things swirled into a bacchanalian tempest of unbridled passion and orgiastic revelry.

That’s what happens when you front-load a program with the German composer Hans Werner Henze’s “Mänadentanz,” an excerpt from his 1965 opera “The Bassarids.” The piece cracks open like Pandora’s box and releases all manner of stalking, swooping and cavorting figures — a Dionysian riot that plummets into the dark depths of pleasure.

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I’ve grown accustomed to orchestras opening programs with a warm-up work that hits you like a cold bucket of water, a choice that often seems purely calisthenic. Reif, on the other hand, dealt “Mänadentanz” like a calling card. Its jagged peaks and tranquil valleys, its pent-up energy and ample opportunities for dynamic drama (like the growing insistence of the strings’ replies toward the end) all offered a forecast of the program to come.

Reif, who late this summer will lead his debut season as inaugural music director of the Lakes Area Music Festival of Minnesota, was an arresting force from the podium, his body snapping like a whip, tightening and softening as though he were loaded with springs. At times the work was entirely a matter of his hands, which banished and beckoned sounds from all around him — once or twice he seemed to lift a figure to his nose like a rose.

The conductor brought the same variety of expression to Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, a piece so perma-polished it can be hard to tell when it’s being freshened. Reif matched a fluid grace with an architectural sensibility, offering a detail-oriented performance with especially pleasing lightness and clarity across the woodwinds.

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The Mozart showcased the BSO’s strong, invested and slightly caffeinated sound. Even at their softest or most refined (that Ländler in the third movement was pure delight), the musicians felt fully charged, extra-present. I chalk this up to concertmaster Jonathan Carney, who brought a contagious edge-of-his-seat intensity the entire evening.

It’s not often that “The New Work” reliably wedged into standard classical programs ends up the one stuck in my head the next morning. But Jessie Montgomery’s “Rounds” has an almost mnemonic stickiness. The concerto was composed for pianist Awadagin Pratt — who spent eight years in Baltimore, becoming the first student at the Peabody Institute to earn degrees in three performance areas. “Rounds” was commissioned by Pratt’s own Art of the Piano Foundation, as well as nine orchestras, including the BSO. On Thursday night, he joined the orchestra for a forceful, imaginative and precisely tinted performance of the work.

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The piece is built upon lines of exacting tension from a 1936 T.S. Eliot poem, “Burnt Norton” (which later would become the first of his “Four Quartets”): “At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;/ Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,/ But neither arrest nor movement.”

This tug-of-war between stasis and movement animates the entire piece. Montgomery also cites fractal designs as an inspiration for “Rounds,” and, indeed, at times the music seemed to reflect its own surfaces. Pratt’s shimmering piano hovered like a mist before the strings scattered upward like a startled flock of pigeons. He moved from feather-light textures (smartly punctuated here and there by plucked basses) into harshly hammered figures (the crooked teeth of the central motif become strangely alluring by the end).

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A thrilling cadenza found Pratt up and over the keyboard, reaching into the body of the piano to strike an icy sequence of high notes before lowering himself back to the bench as though sinking into water — a restless flood of notes rising all around him. “Rounds” was something of a revelation, and a reinforcement of Montgomery’s reliably vital voice as a composer. I hope this first time wasn’t my last time hearing it.

The through-line of dance continued into the night’s closer, Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” suite, which has just as much to do with Artur Rodzinski, who arranged it from sections of Strauss’s 1911 opera and conducted its first performance in 1944.

Reif’s fondness for Strauss was evident in his inhabitation of the suite’s many moods, from the bellowing entrance (Octavian and the Marschallin’s passion a fitting bookend to Henze’s) to its wild waltz(es), which Reif threw himself fully into, indulging their oomph while sharpening their irony. (Honorable mention goes to Lura Johnson on celesta and Sarah Fuller on harp for their splendid handling of the recurring rose motif.)

It remains to be seen who will fill Marin Alsop’s shoes as the BSO’s music director. It’s tempting to parse the orchestra’s ongoing string of guest conductors — including Reif — as a shortlist of sorts. In Reif, the orchestra would get a showman, but, as this brief encounter also revealed, a conductor who contains multitudes — who can dance many dances at once.

Awadagin Pratt Returns repeats Friday-Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore. bsomusic.org.

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