For its final offering in the Vivat! St. Petersburg celebration of Russian culture, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has selected three of the most popular works from that country - Glinka's Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade - and is serving them up in style.
The podium is in the hands of Yuri Temirkanov's associate conductor at the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Nikolai Alexeev, who also leads the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra. The keyboard is in the hands of their young compatriot Anna Kravtchenko, who won the 1992 Busoni Competition at 16. Both are making their BSO debuts.
The orchestra, on an expressive roll from the start of Vivat, seemed to find Alexeev a congenial guide through these familiar scores last night at Meyerhoff Hall. His beat was clear, his phrasing thoughtful.
It's possible to get a little more character and color out of the Glinka piece, but its whirling, curtain-raising power was certainly felt. There was plenty of crackle from the ensemble, with the violins demonstrating the same virtuosic control as in last week's burst of Prokofiev.
The Tchaikovsky war horse has been around the track so often that it can turn into quite a nag, but Kravtchenko had it trotting like a filly. Not right at the gate, though. Her approach to the opening bars was surprisingly light, almost timid; she nearly disappeared beneath the orchestral waves. But that only made the subsequent fire in her playing all the more effective.
She got particular mileage out of thunderous octave passages, throwing caution to the wind and just letting 'em rip, an approach she repeated to electric effect in the finale. To the second movement she brought considerable sweetness and, in the mid-section, glitter.
Alexeev was a poised partner for the impressive pianist and drew from the BSO lyricism and bravura to match hers. Elizabeth Rowe's subtly shaded flute solo was among the highlights.
Scheherazade is just about as well-worn as the concerto, but it, too, sounded quite perky last night. The conductor allowed the music plenty of breathing room, without ever easing up on the momentum. His authoritative, idiomatic interpretation unleashed the work's evocative beauty.
Concertmaster Jonathan Carney outdid himself, providing an exquisitely spun connective thread, while nearly all the other soloists in the ensemble added much to the sonic tapestry.
The strings poured on the tone, the woodwinds put considerable character into their phrasing, and the brass were mostly in shining form. Typically dead-on work from the percussion battery capped the eventful performance.
The concert will be repeated at 8 tonight and 3 p.m. tomorrow at Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $26 to $72. Call 410-783-8000.