The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) regularly makes the case for their consideration amongst the nation’s finest orchestras, but perhaps seldom so strongly as with the quality displayed on their Bartok and Tchaikovsky program this past weekend. Gabriela Montero’s guest soloist presence aided that cause significantly as well.
The “Concerto for Orchestra” by Bela Bartok is by no means a new or contemporary work. But, while it certainly resides well within the core orchestral canon, it is decidedly near the vanguard of the standard repertoire when it comes to newness and uniqueness. For most listeners, the lines of familiarity and freshness are perhaps a bit blurred, its comparative youthfulness allowing regular concertgoers to struggle momentarily with comprehension, but while still remaining grounded in the direction and themes of the work.
“…some great playing from a fabulous orchestra.”
Here, on the Bartok, was where the BSO was most impressive. Maestra Alsop’s attention to the smallest of details was evident throughout the entire work and contributed to the type of successful performance that only happens when subtlety and scope are equally attended to. Though virtually all sections and principals were highlighted, it never felt as if the spotlight was being assumed in order to conflate ego. Rather, this role was passed amongst the orchestra with a nimbleness and quality of craft that paid reverent service to the music.
The strings’ control of color and dynamic were perhaps the best asset in regard to aiding the emotional arch of the five-movement work. Their ability to abruptly shift without jarring, and to nuance without overindulging was much appreciated. From the winds, better solo and chamber playing could not have been asked for – a phenomenal job across the board. Led by herculean strength from principal trumpeter Andrew Balio, the brasses produced a massive breadth of sound that was unified and never edged toward excessive. Truly, some great playing from a fabulous orchestra.
The concert began with another work by Bartok, his “Rumanian Folk Dances.” The seven short movements for strings were mostly light and playful. Again, an impressive dynamic and color range was on display in what was a great whetting of the appetite for the longer piece by the same composer that followed.
After intermission, Gabriela Montero joined the orchestra for a solid performance of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto. The Venezuelan-born pianist plays with dazzling technique and a significant heft of strength, but perhaps her best quality is the maturity with which she yields those assets. Nothing felt hurried or overdone. It was an interpretation that felt authentic and unburdened.
Montero’s encore was an absolute treat. Microphone in hand, she asked the audience to suggest a well-known melody to use as a theme for an improvisation. Bernstein’s “America” was the first and only proposal. After a time or two through the melody alone, Montero plunged headfirst into a set of variations that went from contrapuntal and understatedly jazzy, through harmonically complex chorales, to full-on ragtime.
Running Time: Two hours and ten minutes with an intermission.