For sheer novelty value, this week's all-20th-century Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program was hard to beat. For substance and potent music-making, it stood out, too.
Two well-known composers, Rachmaninoff and Bernstein, were on the bill, but represented by lesser-known pieces. And anything by contemporary Austrian composer HK Gruber is well out of the mainstream.
It takes nerve, not to mention imagination, for a conductor to lead such a program in his debut with an orchestra. Junichi Hirokami, former principal conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, seemed thoroughly fearless Thursday night as he led the BSO for the first time. Too bad an ocean of empty seats greeted him at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. (I hope more people turned out last night for the last performance.)
Bernstein's Divertimento for Orchestra, a mazurka-to-blues showpiece written for the Boston Symphony's centennial in 1980, deserves to be a staple. Like the composer himself, the music is assertive, clever, colorful, often witty, a little pretentious, ultimately irresistible.
Hirokami had the score well in hand, though a little more propulsion overall would have connected the eight movements more tightly. The BSO sounded tentative here and there, but gave the brassiest, jazziest passages real zing.
Gruber's Aerial, a daunting 1999 work for trumpet and orchestra, moves from night sky to night club in two long, riveting movements. The soloist is asked to produce every possible sound, and a few impossible ones, from two different trumpets and a Swedish folk instrument called the cow horn. Periodically, he has to sing into the mouthpiece.
If the still, expansive opening movement suggests 2001: A Space Odyssey, the finale is closer to the bar scene in Star Wars, a raucous, oddball place where dissonance and familiar harmonies coexist tentatively.
The ending fizzles just when the energy is really cooking, but the composer justifies the break in the action with a disarming touch - the trumpeter sends his last note deep into the soundboard of an open piano and lets it slowly die away.
Aerial was composed for Swedish trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger, who gave a sensational, unruffled, involving performance, backed by Hirokami's calm authority and the BSO's fine-tuned support.
The conductor revealed remarkable assurance and stylistic sensitivity in Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 3. He had the music churning and shimmering to consistently telling effect. Even in those spots where the composer is under-inspired, Hirokami's sure grip meant no let-up of expressive tension.
The BSO delivered a classy performance, each section producing a tightly cohesive sound and tapping into the essence of Rachmaninoff's dark lyricism.