The highlight of Saturday's concert by the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra was the appearance by an artist who wasn't supposed to be there.
Pianist Jeffrey Chappell, a member of the faculties of Goucher College and the Levine School of Music in Washington, was pressed into service when Fabio Bidini, the soloist originally scheduled to perform, had to leave the country because of a family emergency.
At the last minute, Chappell stepped in to join David Itkin, music director of the Arkansas Symphony and a candidate to succeed Leslie Dunner at the helm of the local orchestra, in the Piano Concerto of Aram Khatchaturian.
Khatchaturian's concerto is rather a neglected work, though one wonders why because it combines Armenian folksiness with the romanticism of Rachmaninoff, the steely percussiveness of Prokofiev and the jazzy insouciance of Gershwin. It is a crowd-pleaser, par excellence, as the visitors wasted no time in proving.
Chappell tapped into the diverse elements of the score with tremendous sweep and passion, delivering a first-movement cadenza that was one of the most absorbing white-knuckle rides of recent memory. How lucky we all were that he was available to step in and save the day.
Itkin responded with exemplary accompanying that was as secure and supportive as it was bold and dashing. In his hands, the players sounded fully engaged every step of the way. Good for him. It speaks volumes of Itkin's skill as an accompanist that he was able to pull such an exotic work together under such difficult circumstances. Give him an edge in this department over Jose-Luis Novo, the season's first entrant in the conductor's derby, who was not as in sync with his violinist and mezzo-soprano at his Maryland Hall audition concert last month.
Elsewhere, Itkin came across as a methodical, thoughtful leader whose stocks in trade are clarity and order. All parts speak audibly and everything seems nicely in balance. This judicious approach worked well in Mozart's overture to Cosi fan tutte, which did not sparkle but had appealing weight behind it nevertheless.
But I spent most of Johannes Brahms' 4th Symphony waiting for something to cut loose with abandon, and found myself disappointed at nearly every turn. A restless, surging work in E minor, Brahms' final symphony can lend itself to high drama or to a more intimate brand of lyricism. Either approach can work. What I heard Saturday sounded small, cautious and short of drama and lyricism. In the first movement, I heard little in the way of ethereal beauty from the violins.
The opening measures of the fourth movement can pack an incredible wallop but sounded awfully polite, especially if you believe that in the final movement of his final symphony, Old Johannes wanted to go out with a bang.