The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's annual Summer MusicFest opened a rhapsodic flair. Artistic director Mario Venzago fashioned the roughly 80-minute, intermission-less program out of rhapsodies, literal and figurative; guest pianist Lang Lang produced some extravagantly rapturous playing.
If the experience Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall could have been a little more filling, it certainly worked as a lighthearted tone-setter for the festival (which resumes July 12). The concert offered opportunities to drink in colorful sounds and dancing rhythms, complementing all the frolicking outside the theater before and after.
It's always fun having Venzago here. He's an uncontrollably lively presence who seems to connect as strongly to the orchestra as to the audience. He's all about having a good time, and using good music to do it.
Venzago responds imaginatively to works that exploit instrumental textures and are open to subtle tweakings of tempo and phrasing. This ear for detail helped him fashion an unusually eventful account of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 4, with the brooding, lyrical bits stretched out to telling effect and the heel-kicking passages heated up quite nicely. Nothing in the score was allowed to pass by indifferently.
The BSO's playing had a good deal of sparkle. Likewise in Ravel's Alborada del gracioso. That prismatic score, which finds the composer rhapsodizing over Spanish tunes and pulses, inspired a refined, jovial performance.
In both works, the strings proved particularly adept at giving Venzago the delicate nuances he asked for; slow fade-outs were accomplished with admirable control. Similar sensitivity characterized a suite from La boutique fantasque, a ballet made up of Respighi's brilliant orchestrations of (and, you might say, a kind of rhapsody on) delicious tunes by Rossini.
Venzago gave even the most straightforward dances in the suite charming inflections of dynamics or rhythm. Again, the orchestra sounded generally disciplined and vibrant.
The program's big-ticket item -- Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini -- showcased Lang Lang's exceptional talent.
Recently, I've read some carping about the young pianist's unbridled bravura and heavy emoting at the keyboard. Maybe he does go over the top at times. So what?
I've yet to hear a vapid or by-the-book performance from him. Better someone totally alive, individualistic and fired up by the music than a perfect little pianist any day.
Lang Lang found myriad shadings in the Rachmaninoff war-horse, lavishing as much care on the gentle as the pyrotechnic. The orchestra didn't show enough restraint during his softer playing early on, but things quickly got on track; soloist, conductor and ensemble were soon all on the same, smooth wave-length.
Not exactly a shrinking violet, Lang Lang was easily coaxed back for two encores. He first ripped up the joint by pushing the famous Horowitz arrangement of The Stars and Stripes Forever to warp-speed and giving it enormous thunder. Insane. Irresistible.
Even more impressive in many ways was the follow-up -- the Liszt transcription of Schumann's Widmung, which Lang Lang fashioned into a stunningly poetic rhapsody.