By Ronan Goeke
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) began its concert series on September 28, 2023.
Headlined by Dvořák’s famed Symphony No. 9 (titled “From the New World”), the weekend marked the orchestra’s first concert series performance with new music director Jonathan Heyward, the first Black music director of a major American orchestra.
Heyward, a cellist and graduate of Boston Conservatory, started his career at the Hallé Orchestra in England. Since then, he served as the chief conductor of the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie and is now starting his directorship of the BSO this season, breaking a barrier in the historically white-dominated field.
An Amer’ican in Baltimore
After the traditional playing of the national anthem, the program began with Amer’ican by James Lee III of Morgan State. Lee composed the work as a response to the Native American themes of Dvořák’s Ninth and other folk-influenced artwork.
The haunting bassoon and oboe soli swept over the subdued strings, soon followed by an exhilarated build to the final smashing chord. Amer’ican was warmly received by the audience, bringing a smile to Lee’s face as he stepped on stage to take a bow.
Heyward was then joined by Jean-Yves Thibaudet for Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. The jazz-influenced music traveled through the ensemble, marked by an impressively warm and prominent bass clarinet.
As the beat jumped from the woodwinds and fell back to the snare drum, Thibaudet quickly moved into the smooth melody of the solo piano part. His heavy emphasis on the left hand sometimes overpowered the melodic line from the right, a trait that would be heard throughout.
When the gentle low strings joined in, the timing was excellent; it was like Heyward and Thibaudet were telepathically connected.
The second movement had wonderful solos from the horn, trumpet, oboe, and violin; the resonant tones matched the orchestra well.
The bombastic start of the third movement was clearly articulated by the deft winds. The final minutes of the piece were resplendent, sometimes becoming too much; from our seats in the upper left, the piano was often inaudible, an issue heard in the first movement as well.
Thibaudet received much applause after the vivacious ending. But, even though the soloist was well in time with the ensemble, Thibaudet’s performance was like that of a Well-Tempered Clavier concert: extremely strict in speed and rigid in movement.
His playing lacked the free, loose nature with which one should perform Gershwin. The orchestra was stylistically appropriate throughout, but did not match the piano.
Regardless, Thibaudet’s performance was impressive, particularly as the third movement hurdled towards a quick ending. His use of reverb was clean and allowed for the over-exaggerated lower notes to impose their sonority over the audience.
Overall, it was a splendid performance of a marvelous concerto, followed by a lovely encore by Thibaudet that further showed his minimal use of rubato.
After intermission, the principal violist took the mic and honored the recent death of Delmar A. Stewart, who had been a BSO violist for 46 years. As a tribute to Stewart, the ensemble played “Nimrod”, the gentle ninth variation from Elgar’s Enigma Variations.
The stirring performance was filled with emotion, but much too loud. The start of “Nimrod” is marked pianississimo (very soft), yet the strings began at a mezzo piano (moderately soft); this was likely due to Heyward’s unnecessarily big movements, but why is that needed when the strings could simply look towards their concertmaster?
Into the New World
A moment of silence led into the beginning of Dvořák’s “From the New World” Symphony. The low strings thundered across the music hall, precisely followed by the roar of the timpani and a well-tuned wind entrance.
The main theme in the horns was prominent but balanced with the volume of the orchestra, and the flute and clarinet were closely connected. Repeating back to the main theme, the winds effectively replicated their style from the first time.
Whole and balanced brass chords started the largo (very slow) second movement, the climbing strings anticipating the famous cor anglais solo. The deep woodwind entered, but right after the first note, the sound dropped; after a quick recovery, the performer played the rest of the solo with a beautifully open sound. The low strings were enchanting, underlying the upper strings and woodwinds with a firm but kind foundation.
Despite having an excellent tone throughout, the orchestra was still too loud. The music is not marked pianississimo like the Elgar, but was still heard at a general volume of mezzo piano.
Again, Heyward was the culprit, having such animated gestures that it only made sense to play too loudly. Furthermore, Heyward did not express the same level of emotion as, say, the cor anglais soloist or the low strings.
Be that as it may, Heyward’s conducting brought forth exact timing from different sections, and the low strings at the end finally delivered the quiet volume we were yearning for.
The opening statement of movement three had defined attacks. Here, Heyward’s exuberant conducting paid off; the timing was accurate, the musicality evident, and the cues together.
Grand brass filled the concert hall with the main theme as the fourth movement began, further exhibiting their exceptional tone. The clarinetist sang through their instrument as the luscious solo soared over the orchestra.
Yet, the further into the movement the orchestra got, something became apparent: the energy levels were slowly decreasing.
While the third movement had been bouncy, the fourth became fatigued and almost bored; the ensemble did not drag, but the spike in energy that one expects from the end of the symphony did not come.
In fact, the ending was almost rushed; the marked meno mosso e maestoso (less motion and stately) was almost the exact same tempo as the first statement of the movement’s theme, and the following allegro con fuoco (quickly with fire) was indistinguishable from the previous tempo.
For the ending of such a monumental symphony, one expects every single sound to be juiced. After the last note from the whole orchestra, the winds sustained the final notes, decreasing in volume to… a mezzo piano.
It was as if Dvořák wanted to challenge the orchestra to play his marked dynamic (pianississimo), and the group did not win that challenge.
The fourth movement was rather disappointing compared to the verve of the other movements.
Even so, the orchestra stayed together and maintained a quality tone throughout, concluding the night with a fine performance of Dvořák’s “From the New World” Symphony.
Heyward: An Analysis
Now, the million dollar question: how did Heyward perform as conductor? Well, it’s evident that Jonathan Heyward is part of the school of modern conductors derived from Seiji Ozawa, characterized by animated movements, high energy, and very thorough preparation.
Some conductors do not plan their movements before performance, but this is not the case for the Ozawa school, where every single motion is carefully planned out prior to rehearsals.
This technique brings the orchestra together and creates precise entrances, but can also cause a lack of expression in the quieter sections, an issue we saw in the Elgar and the second movement of “New World”.
In what is an odd defiance of the Ozawa technique, the conductor seemed to not know what to do with his left hand.
Conductors often use the right hand to indicate time and the left to show volume and expression, sometimes keeping time with both to be very clear. With Amer’ican, he almost always used both hands for time, which makes sense given the work’s complicated rhythms.
In the concerto, the left hand usually stayed in front of his stomach; it was intentionally out of the way so that the soloist had room for his own interpretations.
In the Dvořák, however, the left hand sort of… hung out. When it wasn’t directing time with the right, the hand was awkwardly positioned in front of him, like he was gesturing for something without actually moving.
The last issue is Heyward’s small quirk: adjusting his glasses during the music.
He didn’t adjust them often, but when he did, it was almost interruptive to the flow of his conducting.
In movement one of “New World”, the conductor was using wide motions to indicate a sweeping melody, but his left hand suddenly flew up to fix his glasses, leaving his right hand beating time with no purpose.
Odd quirks aside, Heyward’s conducting featured a vast array of motions. His marcato pounding in one moment of Amer’ican was immediately followed by gentle swaying from side to side, maintaining a stable tempo but expressing the dance-like quality of the music.
Heyward was successful in creating a unique approach that engrossed the audience, partly due to the odd left hand, but primarily because of the verve and wide selection of motions with which he informed the orchestra how to perform.
Hearing a masterpiece like Dvořák’s Ninth is always a joy, especially when a new music director brings such unique stylistic choices to the ensemble. But, playing a new piece like Amer’ican is no easy task, especially when it contains difficult rhythms.
Nonetheless, the ensemble delivered a wonderful performance that evidently pleased the composer.
The orchestra followed their conductor well and was in time throughout the performance; their impressive tone was also audible in all three works.
While Thibaudet’s performance was lacking in style, he was well connected to the orchestra through a passionate conductor, and the clean use of reverb allowed the lower notes to wash over the audience.
Albeit a few missed attacks, the orchestra was superb; the strings were warm and resonant, the percussion clear and well-blended, the woodwinds stylish and in sync, and the brass whole and prominent.
All this was topped with the proverbial cherry that is Jonathan Heyward: bright, happy, and prepared to transform our local Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
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