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Karen Gomyo and Conductor Kalmar’s Wow-Factor with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

June 2, 2011
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Karen Gomyo (from karengomyo.com)

Karen Gomyo and her “Ex Foulis” Stradivarius delivered a resplendent performance of Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall May 27. The Baltimore Symphony players then followed this up with their first-ever performance of William Walton’s Symphony No. 1 in B-flat Major. Both works demanded big sweeping sound from the orchestra, which delivered under conductor Carlos Kalmar.

None of this grandiosity was apparent from the opener: Benjamin Britten’s setting of Gustav Mahler’s “What the Wild Flowers Tell Me.” The players’ full effect wafted well off the opening woodwind solo and viola plucks, but any lush rising ripples so characteristic of the prismatic Mahler came across overly restrained.

The stifling reserve didn’t last into the Finnish composer’s violin concerto. Sibelius packs so much virtuosity into these three movements that less-able players are bound to falter. Sibelius had harbored dreams of being the grandstanding solo violinist. Starting, like he did, at age 14, is bound to be difficult. He never even made it into the Berlin Philharmonic. But nothing stops him in composing a flight of fancy and brooding calm that can match the more played Mendelssohn or Brahms concertos.

The gentle opening on the strings tingled the spine and Gomyo’s entrance was incisive yet gentle. Kalmar ensured great suspense from the symphony in its quietest moments, so that groundswells from cello and viola could really rock us from under the seats. Spacious, expansive, and profound playing set the bar for the rest of the concert. Here, before the second movement, the audience had to applaud.

Next, Gomyo skimmed across the pedal chords of horn and woodwinds like a crane swoops gentle over the sea surface. You don’t need to consult the program to know she’s working on a superior instrument, her range delights: high notes never run saccharine and the lower mahogany register sounds like it could bleed.

Now Kalmar dipped down deep into the well of what the BSO players are capable of or knew when to stay out of their way. He made sure none trod upon the others, and gave Gomyo room to range. Her playful stepwise song rode up with the flute like an exchange of laughter before the second movement ends with a glorious hush.

When the third movement draws gusto from martial bouncing of the cellists’ bows you’re assured the BSO is so going to nail this work. There were moments of a rich, full body of sound, spread across the orchestra, that approach what you expect from a top-tier orchestra. And all throughout, Gomyo’s darting accomplishment lightens, lifts, and even leads this achievement.

Gomyo, in her twenties, will come back for many future seasons if the applause this evening judges true. Rarely does the BSO’s audience demand an encore before intermission; they did from her. No surprise given the real gusto of concertmaster Jonathan Carney’s kiss of her hand after the first ovation. With charm of impulse she began a spicy Astor Piazzolla Tango Etude, only to break off, apologizing, that she hadn’t practiced it. She then launched into his more lyrical, glistening Tango Etude No. 4, keeping the spell of her Strad alive in the hall for just one delicious moment longer.

After intermission, the brass and timpani took over. Sir William Walton composed this first symphony 20 years before he got the “Sir” before his name. What a feat to follow up the more breathy opener and the reflective Sibelius. The Symphony No. 1 in B-flat Major is almost entirely punch, requiring a finale with a second timpani thrown in for full climax. You can easily hear that John Williams had Walton symphonies on his crib sheet for movie scores. After all, Walton scored many a film himself.

The Walton symphony got every ounce of vigor that these players gave when they launched into “Star Wars” earlier in the season. The brass section attacked entrances with fantastic confidence. Expect more when the BSO offers a night of John Williams’ scores in the summer season (July 22-23).

This program is in the running as one of the best concerts of the season, although this week’s upcoming Emanuel Ax show could knock it from the perch.

Pianist Emanuel Ax joins mastra Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony, June 3,4, and 5 for an evening of Osvaldo Golijov’s New Work (Henry Fogel Commission Consortium), Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, and Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1. For more information and tickets, visit the BSO’s web site.

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