Last night's concert by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its music director, David Zinman, was poorly programmed and poorly attended. It's only too bad that these were happenstances and not a case of cause and effect.
The sparse audience -- Meyerhoff Hall seemed less than three-quarters filled -- may have had something to do with the Jewish High Holy Days; the program that mixed the string-heavy and harmonically sweet music of Richard Strauss and Samuel Barber was a consequence of the orchestra's plans to record a good bit of the latter's music this fall. How repetitive was it to hear Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration" separated by only an intermission from Barber's similar-sounding "Music for a Scene from Shelley"? If the concert had been a movie, it could have been called "Dead Again 2."
The best part came in the performances of the Barber -- not only of the "Scene from Shelley" but also of the Second Essay for Orchestra. The orchestra played both pieces in July during Summerfest. They were smoothly played then, but were much (( more gripping last night. This was a matter of playing the notes more accurately and being better acquainted with the Barber style. The woodwind solos in the Second Essay were more assured; the fugue in the second section was played with a greater purposefulness; and the strings were sweeter and had better ensemble. The piece unfolded in a great line from the opening theme on the solo flute to the great climax and the hymn-like coda. The "Music for a Scene from Shelley" had similar virtues. Because several other orchestras are recording these pieces, one wondered last summer why the BSO was recording them. Last night's fine performances answered that question.