If the Annapolis Symphony sounded like a different orchestra Saturday night at Maryland Hall, that's because it is a different ensemble from the one that bade farewell to Leslie Dunner last spring.
Principal flute Kim Valerio is back after a year playing second chair with the world-class St. Louis Symphony. Several new "acting principals" and "acting associate principals" dot the ranks, and an expanded, refurbished cello section is making an impact.
Also, former concertmaster Jose Cueto, an Annapolis Symphony Orchestra fixture in the late 1980s, assumed that same position in an "acting" role for last weekend's concerts.
The most significant change is the absence of music director Dunner (who has relocated to Chicago) and the rhythmically buoyant, almost balletic approach he brought to the repertoire. With him, the music was more about movement and rhythmic direction than about the sheer beauty of sound.
The aesthetic tables were turned a bit last weekend as the orchestra's first guest conductor in this season of transition came to Annapolis from the Philadelphia Orchestra, where unadulterated tonal luster has been a way of life for generations.
The visitor was Rossen Milanov, assistant conductor of the "Fabulous Philadelphians," who appears regularly there and in his native Bulgaria.
He brought to Annapolis an expansive, unhurried, expressive style possessed of admirable depth and an unabashedly sensual approach. And, because a program of Mendelssohn, Elgar and Rachmaninoff represents Romanticism at its most unabashedly sensual, we were witness to a most felicitous marriage of style and substance.
Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, a concert overture inspired by the nautical sentiments of the Romantic poet Johann von Goethe, was atmospheric to a fault, with a gorgeously sustained introduction sketching out a seascape soon to be animated by all manner of musical ripples and swells.
The account proved a bit more sedate than ideal, but there can be no quibbling with the radiant sound Milanov summoned from his players.
Not since soprano Kishna Davis set Maryland Hall on its ear at Leslie Dunner's audition concert six years ago has a soloist galvanized an ASO audience like 24-year-old pianist Stewart Goodyear, who joined the orchestra for Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto.
A Juilliard product who has performed with the symphonies of Chicago, San Francisco and Houston, Goodyear fuses elegance, passion and eye-popping technical facility into a musical spirit that suits "Rachy 2" to a T.
His quintessentially Russian basso profundo sound is there in the left hand, making the famous opening chords as arresting as they should be, while the cross-handed fingerings late in the opening movement are downright courtly in their unaffected gracefulness.
Best of all was the spirit of give-and-take that the pianist was able to forge with the ASO principals. The concerto might be a fire-breather, but its many instrumental solos require sensitive accompanying from the keyboard if they are to inspire the listener. These passages for the oboe, the flute and, most significant, the clarinet in the celestial second movement were achingly beautiful, thanks to the imaginative, almost improvisatory flair the pianist brought to them.
He was abetted by his conductor's sensitivity to these rubatos, the subtle surges and releases of tempo articulated as musical phrases are coaxed to fruition.
The truest glimpse into Milanov's musical imagination occurred in the Enigma Variations, Elgar's evocative musical portraits of 12 of his dearest friends and, ultimately, himself.
From the excitable Arthur Troyte Griffith (Variation 7) to the effervescent Dorabella (Variation 10) to the noble and glowing adagio known as Nimrod (Variation 9), the point couldn't have been clearer: Sir Edward did honor to some very colorful friends in this quirky, wonderfully unique piece of music.