The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is livening up the weekend, and perhaps even risking a bit of political fallout, with an all-French - whoops, all-Freedom - presentation.
In disarming remarks to the audience last night at Meyerhoff Hall, guest conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier acknowledged the irony of serving up nothing but French music, led by a Frenchman and with another Frenchman as piano soloist in the same week that French fries and French toast have been renamed Freedom fries and Freedom toast in the House of Representatives cafeterias - all because the French government won't embrace American plans for war against Iraq.
"What about the French kiss?" Tortelier asked with a smile. "If there is one thing that can bring us together," he said, "it is definitely music."
Relations between the U.S. and one of its oldest allies may well remain icy, but relations between this conductor and the BSO sounded as cordial as could be. The result was one of the most elegant, enveloping nights of the season so far. Tortelier, making his BSO debut, has an exceptional pedigree, being the son of eminent cellist Paul Tortelier. He has a refined sense of style and proportion, he communicates vividly - qualities I've observed over the years with orchestras he has conducted elsewhere.
From the BSO players, he generated an exceptional level of spontaneity and sensitivity, starting with excerpts from Berlioz's symphonic portrait, Romeo and Juliet. Tortelier lavished care on the subtlest details of the Love Scene, so that a single note, or a single chord, was worth a thousand words. The strings, especially the cellos and violas, sustained an exquisite tone during this remarkably atmospheric music.
In the Queen Mab Scherzo and the scene that depicts Romeo before and during the fateful ball at the Capulets, Tortelier again proved a superb colorist, coaxing a range of delicate and dazzling hues from the BSO.
The rest of the program was devoted to Ravel. Tortelier reduced the size of the orchestral forces for the Piano Concerto in G major, pointing up the score's debt to jazz and ensuring transparent textures; he and the attentive ensemble provided seamless support for first-rate pianist Jean-Philippe Collard, also making his BSO debut (30 years after his first U.S. appearances). Collard did unfailingly tasteful work at the keyboard, with plenty of character and sparkle in the outer movements. His poetic molding of the Adagio would have been even more affecting had a bronchial brigade not let loose barrage after barrage of coughs in the hall.
With the BSO back up to full strength, Tortelier offered an authoritative, beautifully controlled account of Bolero. Lots of vibrant solo efforts and, in the end, bravura all around yielded an explosive performance.
What: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
When: 8 tonight, 3 p.m. tomorrow
Where: Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
Admission: $26 to $72