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Putting it on Ax

Emmanuel Ax with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, March 16

Jefferson Jackson Steele
NOT-SO-CRAZY 88s: Emmanuel ax strolls through Mozart at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

By Jens F. Laurson | Posted 3/29/2006

Yuri Temirkanov’s continued absence from Baltimore might be lamented—and certainly raises some questions about the conductor’s commitment to his final season—but it also brings welcome change to the Meyerhoff by allowing other, up-and-coming conductors to take the podium. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s associate conductor, Andrew Constantine, shone three weeks ago, and tonight it was the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s assistant conductor, Ludovic Morlot, who took a crack.

The main attraction on this Thursday night, though, was Polish-born Canadian pianist Emanuel Ax, who performed Mozart’s first great piano concerto, No. 9 K 271 in E-flat major. Named after its dedicatee, the infelicitously named Mademoiselle Jeunehomme, it has left commentators grasping for superlatives to describe this, even by Mozart standards, genial work. Ax played it with the satisfied and unspectacular delight of a musician who has nothing to prove to himself or others. He simply enjoyed himself at the piano.

With a dry sparkle, Ax enjoyed a jovial, if not deeply engaged, back-and-forth with the orchestra, bubbling speedily across his keyboard at first, taking things down to a murmur in an expansive, slow second movement, and revving back up for the finale, while still finding time to sandwich a slower, more lyrical aside between his lightning runs. All very lovely, no doubt, but lacking the kind of energy that sustains the interest of an audience not particularly concerned with note-for-note precision. From a lesser pianist the performance would be merely pedestrian, too focused on accuracy and reflecting an inability to connect with an audience, to bring drama and movement to the notes on the page. For Ax, clearly a first-rate performer based on past achievements, his virtuosity and self-satisfaction allowed his enjoyment at the piano to lapse into self-absorption.

Under Morlot’s precise guidance, the BSO showed its continually improving Mozart skills. The beauty of Mozart’s music may be indestructible, but it is surprisingly easy for a modern orchestra to make a dense hash of it. And the BSO offers a refreshingly light touch, even if it didn’t always gel with the soloist.

Igor Stravinsky composed his Pétrouchka, the work that concluded tonight’s concert, between the ballets Firebird and the infamous Rite of Spring. A vibrant work for orchestra and piano—played here in its more compact and manageable 1947 version—it is a wild ride through the emotional state of feuding puppets at a Russian fair. Violent and abrasive one moment, jocular and tame the next, it retains enough of Firebird’s accessibility and plenty of the music that shocked two years later in Rite.

The sparse Baltimore audience heard an enjoyable performance when the maestro reached deep and got plenty—just not everything—from the musicians. As with Ax’s performance, note perfection doesn’t make for a good Pétrouchka—terse, tight rhythms, threatening attacks, and the sense of a great, sinister hoopla does. And Morlot’s highly driven performance had those attributes in spades. With extremely precise conducting—contrasting sharply with Temirkanov’s suggestive, shapeless waves that are more concerned with color and feeling—and vigorous cues, he can infuse the BSO with plenty of energy, though not always with passion. Morlot left enough clues in tonight’s mixed bag to predict that we shall hear his name more often in the future.

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