The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra's latest program was conceived as a study in contrasts - between young and old composers, between strings and winds, between mediocrity and brilliance. As it turned out, the similarities in the music made the bigger impression.
Devoted to works by Haydn, Mozart and Strauss, the concert ultimately became a study in 18th-century elegance. (Never mind that Strauss died in 1949.) Had the performance also been a study in orchestral polish, the rewards would have been doubled.
Guest conductor Kirk Trevor, music director of the Knoxville Symphony, started things off Wednesday at Goucher College with the Serenade in E-flat for winds by a teen-age Strauss.
It's a remarkably assured piece, attuned to the sonic possibilities of the instruments (a string bass was used instead of a contrabassoon or tuba), and full of ingratiating melodic lines. While clearly romantic in terms of harmony, there's a certain restraint in the score, a classical elegance of expression that Mozart would have admired. That quality emerged charmingly in the well-paced performance; too bad the last chord couldn't be sustained evenly.
There also was some late-period Strauss - the Sextet from his 1942 opera "Capriccio," arranged for string orchestra. Here the 18th-century connection wasn't just the opera's setting, Paris in the 1770s, but in the very nature of this string serenade. It's almost a Mozartean rhapsody, clothed in the lush, autumnal harmonic shades of Strauss' last years.
The conductor left some finer details unattended and didn't put a strong stamp on the music, but he had it flowing naturally and unaffectedly. The playing was ragged; in particular, the violins and violas had trouble holding together in the few bustling passages. Still, the rich sound-world of the score was often tapped.
Trevor offered up Mozart's Symphony No. 14 as evidence that even the mighty Mozart could have an off day. True, it's not exactly brimming with indelible melodies. And, except for an unexpected turn in the Minuet, the harmonic progression is decidedly commonplace. Then again, the composer was only 15 at the time.
Even without achieving great distinction, the symphony reveals considerable refinement and balance - 18th-century elegance again. A cleaner account of the work would have made that plainer. The first measures were ragged, and the violins sounded anemic throughout.
Things went more securely in the concert-concluding sample of mature Haydn, his Symphony No. 103, the "Drumroll."
Rhythmic transitions in the first movement could have been smoother, but Trevor's overall grip on the score proved effective as he emphasized the buoyant side of this work; his propulsive touch in the Minuet was especially telling. Although the orchestra needed more consistent violins, the overall response was confident and colorful. The violin solo in the second movement was brightly, surely delivered.
Granted, it might have been more logical to continue the youth/age contrast with a mature Mozart symphony. But it's always rewarding to encounter Haydn's genius for form and content.