Conductor Gisele Ben-Dor set quite an agenda for her players last weekend by programming both the Beethoven "C-minor Piano Concerto" and the "Fourth Symphony" of Gustav Mahler )) for the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra's third concert of the season.
She and the orchestra accomplished their mission in fine style, despite the enormous challenges posed by such a pair of masterworks.
For the Beethoven concerto, the orchestra welcomed Anton Nel, an excellent 31-year-old pianist who has already made successful stops with the highly pedigreed orchestras of Chicago, Houston, Seattle and Cincinnati.
His Beethoven, in collaboration with Ms. Ben-Dor, was something special, indeed. Mr. Nel is a committed musician who plays with taste, palpable seriousness of purpose and a wonderfully submerged ego.
There are no tricks or indulgences.
His tone, though voluptuous when he wants it to be, is a model of lucidity and clarity.
The concerto he and Ms. Ben-Dor created was gracious, poised and unfussy; a strikingly less austere, insistent Beethoven "C-minor" than you often hear. Beethoven seemed to be declaiming more through reasoned persuasion than through his usual Olympian pronouncements.
To be sure, there was nothing held back in the pianist's torrential first movement cadenza or in the tenacious manner in which the orchestra dug into the closing Rondo but, on the whole, this was Beethoven cast in a Mozart-like glow. Delightful.
Balances were admirably clear and the pace unhurried. Ms. Ben-Dor's gentle slowings for second themes in both the outer movements attested to her desire to infuse Beethoven's intensity with a bit of sentiment and were absolutely convincing.
The orchestra, while it couldn't quite match Mr. Nel's rapt eloquence at the outset of the slow movement, was generally on top of its game. The strings, in particular, played with an authority that did them credit.
Ms. Ben-Dor turned the tables in the Mahler symphony with a taut, brisk, angular reading that accented every mood swing, every conflicting emotional episode in the piece. No kinder, gentler Mahler here.
Other than some intonation problems, which marred the Adagio, the orchestra was with her every step of the way, especially her concert mistress, solo flute, clarinet and French horn who played with a vengeance.
Soprano Julianne Borg had to work a bit to be heard, but sang convincingly in the concluding "Wunderhorn" sequence.
This was indeed a worthy entry into Mahler's one-of-a-kind world struggle and redemption.
Let us also commend Ms. Ben-Dor for her sense of restraint.
When a trumpet player barreled through his rest and "soloed" in the opening Beethoven tutti, she didn't stop the performance to shoot him.
No jury in the world would have convicted her if she had.