I have always liked Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" and thought of it as pleasant music with some clever imitations of nature sounds thrown in to make it interesting. Last night, Anne Harrigan and the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, along with violinist Daniel Heifitz, shook the dust of this work and found some real musical substance rattling around in its overly familiar notes. It was a surprising discovery.
In fact, the BCO was a surprising discovery. These musicians are worth hearing and their season-opening concert at Goucher College proves it.
Harrigan and Heifitz were not the usual conductor and soloist team, thrown together by matching airline schedules rather than artistic purpose. They had obviously worked out a joint conception of the Vivaldi and their lucid reading was both historically informed and vibrant.
Throughout the performance, they continually watched each other, playing off their reactions, almost daring the other to take more risks with the music.
The infectious spirit of their collaboration spread throughout the orchestra. What a pleasure it was to see the orchestra members actually smiling while they played. But Harrigan never lost control of her players. Rhythms were flexible but never shapeless. Textures remained clear, bringing out the subtle interplay among the various musical lines.
Heifitz played with daring and humility -- one minute whizzing through rapid scales, the next, artfully blending into the entire ensemble. The range of colors in his playing was impressive. He was equally comfortable producing sweet bird-calls as he was stretching out long notes without any vibrato. Each effect was perfectly chosen, stylish, witty, but never obvious and always played with complete control.
The second half of the program included Ravel's gently elegiac "Pavane pour une Infante Defunte" and the brash folklore of Kodaly's "Dances for Galanta." Both of these works are written for large orchestras and Harrigan took a chance playing them with a chamber group. Details that seem subtle in a full orchestra suddenly become vivid in a smaller guise. The BCO played them well, for the most part, but some weaknesses emerged.
As in the Vivaldi, Harrigan's overall approach to each piece was well thought out and executed with sensitivity and precision. The details, however, were less successful. Many of the solo lines were sloppily played, except for Nik Hecker's clarinet in the Kodaly. At times, the strings lacked warmth and body, occasionally adopting a brittle sound. Entrances consistently sounded tentative and detracted from the quality of the ensemble's musicianship.
All of these problems can be fixed, and when they are, the BCO will be a truly exciting addition to the city's musical life.