Two of the most positive aspects of Gisele Ben-Dor's tenure with the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra have been her affinity for 20th-century music and her skill as an accompanist in the concerto repertoire.
Expectations were high, then, for last weekend's ASO concert program, which played to Ms. Ben-Dor's strengths: "Diversions for Orchestra" by Irving Fine (1914-1962), Stravinsky's "Petrouchka" and the sumptuous Third Piano Concerto of Rachmaninoff.
Her soloist in the Rachmaninoff was Tzimon Barto, the Juilliard-trained, body-building Floridian who is well on his way to a major international career. Barto has an EMI recording contract and appearances with Marriner, Slatkin, Maazel and Eschenbach under his belt.
Barto is the biggest celebrity the ASO has reeled in in recent years, perhaps the hottest property to appear with the orchestra since founding conductor Leon Fleisher brought the Isaac Sterns of the world to Annapolis with a flick of his baton.
The Barto and Ben-Dor performance was animated by the intense contrasts drawn between the lyrical and dramatic elements of this highly episodic work.
Rachmaninoff's first movement, for example, alternated between interludes of hushed, almost reticent delicacy and moments of slam-bang emotionalism, often without much in between. Flirtatious episodes in the Finale were played up fully -- even exaggerated -- to set them off from the vigorous lyricism.
Barto's Rachmaninoff didn't disappoint a capacity audience clearly thrilled by the charismatic passion of his playing. But this was no wild and woolly "Rachy 3," or one carried along by the sweep of Russian romanticism.
The results were often fascinating and undeniably exciting. Barto is a world-class virtuoso and he seemed to bring out the best in everyone except Scott Joplin, whose "Maple Leaf Rag" he assaulted in a perversely eccentric encore.
Ms. Ben-Dor ought to have been paid by the mile, for the Rachmaninoff caused her to dance and jump more in this 45-minute stint than in all her other ASO appearances combined.
The aerobics paid off. The orchestra sounded terrific, especially the strings, which seemed to relish every second of the Barto-ASO collaboration.
Occasionally, details were smudged by the woodwinds, due partly to Rachmaninoff (it's often hard to cut through the piano sound), partly to Maryland Hall's acoustics, and partly to the uneven quality of the ASO's principal players.
The feisty modernism of "Petrouchka" gave listeners an opportunity to assess the principals further as they negotiated the diabolical cascades of arpeggios in Stravinsky's thorny ballet score.
The solo trumpet, flute, clarinet, and horn were admirably in sync with the conductor's colorful choreography. However, the oboe and bassoon seemed like wallflowers at the dance.