Review: Reduced Baltimore contingent pleases at Longwood

Posted: July 13, 2012

KENNETT SQUARE — Longwood Gardens has a way to go before it becomes a first-class orchestral venue, but has any place ever had so much potential?

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra made its debut there Wednesday, drawing a mellow audience that filled about 80 percent of the reserved seats for what was really a chamber orchestra concert led by concertmaster Jonathan Carney. The program wasn't ambitious but it did, happily, lack the usual summer warhorses.

"This is the most beautiful outdoor venue I've played in," said Carney. And who could possibly disagree amid the current Light illuminated sculpture installations by Bruce Munro, which turn entire fields around the amphitheater into gardens of colored light?

On the other hand, the open-air pavilion under which the orchestra played has few reflective surfaces, aside from a rear stone wall that is too short to do any acoustic work and topiary hedges that, of course, are too porous. So the amplification system had to create the acoustic. Though you were able to apprehend the music's content pretty much 100 percent — and not be surprised to learn that Carney plays a Stradivarius — the sound system wasn't extensive enough to deliver a true or full string sound.

The main question was whether the musicians could hear themselves or one another. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra can indeed play as well as the best, but perhaps not consistently. On Wednesday, it seemed to struggle to maintain a solid intonation, particularly in harmonically sophisticated repertoire such as Elgar's Serenade for Strings, and in the fugal final movement of Mendelssohn's Octet in an orchestral arrangement.

The concert was at its best, in many ways, during Bach's Violin Concerto No. 2, with Carney acting as soloist. Bach's contrapuntal rigor came through in the orchestra's lean, tightly wound sonority, and especially in Carney's strong-minded, insightful inflections, except when some of the more repetitive accompanying passage work prompted him to mug a bit, getting a small laugh from the audience.

The Mendelssohn Octet is often encountered in chamber orchestra concerts, but mostly when something close to the original score is performed with extra strings. This version, by Yoon Jae Lee, incorporated winds and brass — intelligently. Much of the interplay in the first and last movements could easily have been lost in a fatter string texture, but not when the strands of music were differentiated by the timbre of the gently contrasting instruments.

In the third-movement scherzo, Lee took a cue from the music's kinship with Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream Overture, using wind writing much in the spirit of that orchestration. And how practical is that? Though not large enough to play A Midsummer Night's Dream in the manner to which audiences have become accustomed, the orchestra at least delivered a little taste of it before sending the listeners home — or off touring the light installation — on this midsummer night.

Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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