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March 27, 2001

MSO Made Right Choice

A Review by Pat Pinson

What is black and white and paints colorful pictures?  The MSO of course, playing Mussorgsky.  Pair his "Pictures at an Exhibition" with the other half of the DYNAMIC DUO concert -- Beethoven's Violin Concerto and you have one vibrant venue.

Dmitri Berlinsky is a graduate of Moscow Conservatory and the Juilliard School and has become a citizen of the most prestigious performance halls of the world.  Maestro Speck, in the talk session following the concert, called him one of the "deepest musicians" he had ever performed with.  And the Beethoven Violin Concerto certainly is one of the most popular and revered concertos of the repertoire.   With these credentials, it should have been the highlight of the evening.  And it was beautiful!  However the slower tempo of the first movement proved to make the sound thin in some places, especially at the end of the development section.  Probably from sitting in the balcony on the side, the sound just did not carry but disappeared somewhere up in the stage ceiling.  Surely the current effort to add the orchestra shell on stage will counteract this and focus the sound where it needs to be.  Berlinsky took his time lingering on some solo passages which emphasized the "ma non troppo" side of the Allegro movement.  This whole work felt very classical in its restraint in tempo and quietness, far from the bombastic tendency of many performances.  Yet, it was very romantic in the tugs and pulls of the lines, and the savoring of the beauty of the melodies.

The cadenzas were not the usual ones either, but those written by the legendary Fritz Kreisler.  Berlinsky soared through the double/triple stops, playing the lines in counterpoint, the devilish runs with great feeling and obvious technical prowess.  Very romantic, very bravura.

But, it was the Mussorgsky which was the shining moment of the concert.  Of course, this work is a crowd pleaser, demands a very large orchestra, and is a tour de force in orchestration.  The consummate master, Ravel, took this work written for piano and made it into one of the most evocative orchestral works ever written.  But the uniqueness of this performance was the conductor's realization of its picturesque quality.  The orchestra became Speck's paintbrush and his palette with a full color complement.  Often performed by the premiere U. S. Orchestras - Chicago, Cleveland, New York -- the Mobile Symphony Orchestra suddenly gave new appreciation of these paintings.  The lumbering cart passing, those little chicks doing a frenetic ballet, the spastic jerks and halts of the gnome, the fluttering Tuilleries scene, all were totally folded into the picture.  The orchestra ceased to be the transmitter, and instead, became the event.  Speck was able to conjure up the images and gave them the magic to not sound like an orchestra but the image itself.  That is a rare occurrence for any music making.

This work is also deeper than mere depiction of pictures.  Its humor (in the Ballet of the Chicks which evoked a ripple of laughter in the audience) and its use of the grotesque (in the disappearing Promenade of the viewer - perhaps into the language of the dead, and the unpredictable movements of Baba Yaga or the gnome) make it a vast work as well.  The orchestra performed especially well -- many solos were right on, but mainly the ability of section choirs and the whole orchestra to play as a unit -- made some of the best playing I have heard them do.

MSO made the right choice in their selection of a conductor; it continues to become more and more apparent.  May you prosper and continue to grow and have brilliant moments like this in the coming years!


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