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PARIS - The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra heads into the homestretch of its European visit this week, starting with its Paris debut tonight, after being feted royally in The Hague on Saturday by one of its principal tour sponsors.
The after-concert party in the spectacular atrium of the high-rise city hall, the first reception the musicians have been invited to since leaving home Nov. 20, seemed to be just the thing to relieve the wearying side of travel. Considering all the troop movements ahead, as the BSO plays five concerts in three countries in five days, Saturday's fortifying activities in The Hague were doubly welcome.
Held next door to what must surely be Europe's ugliest concert hall, the lavish affair was presented by Aegon, the international insurance company, for 1,200 of its closest business associates. The formally attired crowd noshed on hors d'oeuvres before filing into the hall to hear two pieces of music, then headed for a hearty spread of food and drink. (The program booklet thoughtfully included maps to more than a dozen buffet stations.)
Back in London, where many people from another of the tour's donors were on hand in the small house, a critic suggested the orchestra had been "laid on as entertainment for a corporate hospitality schmooze." At The Hague bash, that's exactly what was going on.
The BSO was, in essence, playing for its supper, and played quite well for it, too. Andre Watts joined the ensemble for the first of several performances of Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2 that he will give during the remainder of the tour. He was in his usual bravura form and enjoyed smooth support from conductor Yuri Temirkanov and the orchestra.
The solid account of Brahms' Second Symphony that followed, one of the best so far, was interrupted by applause in between movements. But what the audience lacked in concert-going experience it compensated for by awarding the BSO its first standing ovation of the tour.
It was a relief to get out of the Dr. Anton Philipszaal, a stark shoe-box theater with mushy acoustics, garish red seats, pale green walls up the balcony, gray ones from there up to a ceiling of exposed metal beams. The party place, adorned by fake torches, ice sculptures and live statues of mythological figures, contained a well-honed big band that coaxed several BSO members to the dance floor with a Frank Sinatra set.
"Things like the BSO, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters Museum, the Orioles and Ravens are all part of the reason people care to live and have businesses in Maryland," said Donald Shepard, the recently named head of Aegon and a member of the BSO's board. "It behooves all of us to support those organizations."
Although the world economy is in a slump, Aegon appears to be riding high, high enough to put on this elegant, extravagant affair. "Everyone is feeling the pressures," Shepard said. "But our company is not heavily into the property and casualty business, so our losses were not that great from Sept. 11. But we have to continue with entertainment and culture. I was happy to see the BSO go ahead with the tour."
So was David Iannucci, secretary of Maryland's Department of Business and Economic Development, who is heading a trade mission to several of the cities on the BSO's European itinerary.
"We've certainly seen the effects of Sept. 11, but the state of Maryland has been doing very well economically," he said. "The BSO's visit gives us a great promotional advantage and visibility for Maryland; a price tag cannot be put on that."
Although Iannucci does not expect to return home with brand new business deals all signed and sealed, he is optimistic about eventual results of his contacts. "I believe jobs will be created in Maryland that are directly attributable to our visit to The Hague," he said. "Many people here don't know where Maryland is, where Baltimore is. But we have a presence now, thanks to this event. When we come back six months from now, they'll remember us."
If all goes well, the BSO will be back, too, and much sooner than the 14 years that elapsed since its last European travel.
As for this trip, there's no question that the orchestra has been operating on a high level; all of the reviews so far have agreed on that. And, after the sparse turnout in London (it's still unclear if better pre-concert publicity would have made a big difference), it was encouraging to see large, appreciative turnouts in Cologne and Dusseldorf. (The latter was renamed Drizzledorf by one player after the BSO's three-night stay in that rain-soaked city.)
Still, there seems to be something missing, at least since the electrifying concert back in Birmingham on Nov. 23.
"I think the orchestra is playing extremely well," said violist Christian Colberg, "but, based on what we did on previous tours, I'm disappointed that we are not doing better. I hate to say it, but it's almost like we never left home; it feels a little bit like a gig. I see it in the faces when we come off-stage.
"I don't know why the orchestra seems a little tentative. Maybe it goes back to Sept. 11; maybe it's because of switch-hitting concertmasters [the BSO has been alternating two players in that still-vacant position]. There may be many other little issues. But I just want to say, 'Come on people, let's get it together. Rock 'n' roll, baby.' "
At least one of those issues - a new concertmaster - may be settled by tour's end. Jonathan Carney, currently concertmaster of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, appears to be the leading candidate; his playing has been consistently distinguished on the tour. So has that of Boris Garlitsky, who has been sharing the first-chair duties.
"The orchestra is doing really well, considering the pretty rapid travel," said principal second violinist Qing Li. "The orchestra has tremendous confidence in Temirkanov. Even when we go onstage very exhausted, we can concentrate."
Principal trumpeter Andrew Balio also has a basically positive impression of the tour so far.
"Temirkanov is really pouring it out each night," he said. "He really has great concert energy that raises the level of the orchestra. We're getting a lot of cohesion; we're getting that Temirkanov sound.
"But I'd like to see more camaraderie among the musicians. And I'd like to see them have a better time. A concert should be a tremendous event."
It is entirely possible that this closing week will see a series of tremendous events as the BSO performs in Paris for the first time and in the premier concert halls of Berlin and Vienna for the first time. Just being in such musically vital cities may be enough to help rev up the orchestra an extra notch, from very good to sensational.