Nearly two weeks ago, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 provided the finale to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's splashy season-opening gala concert. The Tchaikovsky thread has carried over into the BSO's first subscription series concerts of 2009-2010; one of his greatest hits, Symphony No. 4, closes the program.
Next week's lineup will end with yet another Tchaikovsky war horse, the Violin Concerto, so we've got a clear little trend going on here. (And people complained that former music director Yuri Temirkanov did too much Russian stuff.)
Musically speaking, Tchaikovsky is faring a lot better this week than he did at that gala, when Lang Lang applied too much bling bling to the concerto. On Thursday night, all was serious, sensible and satisfying as Marin Alsop led a forceful account of the fate-challenging Fourth Symphony that found the BSO playing impressively.
Individualistic touches were not exactly rampant, but the conductor's approach had an invigorating sweep that gave each drama-drenched moment its due, right from the opening notes.
The second movement, graced by Katherine Needleman's golden oboe solo, was perhaps too squarely phrased, but still conveyed considerable warmth, and the scherzo was very effectively carried off - lots of dynamic nuance, even at a good sprint. The finale really crackled, showing off the fearless strings to fine advantage.
This performance seemed doubly rewarding, given the unevenness earlier. The program, very Alsop in its mix of the standard and the new, is part of, yes, another connective theme running throughout the season - music that reflects cultural roots.
So the taste of Russian folk tunes in the Tchaikovsky symphony had a counterpart in the ethnic flavor of Brahms' "Hungarian Dances," which opened the evening. Alsop put a few effective bends in the rhythm in those dances, but more charm would have been nice, and the orchestra sounded in need of some technical tightening.
Next up was the area premiere of Jennifer Higdon's Concerto "4-3," a vehicle composed for a hip, young crossover ensemble called Time for Three. (Last season's subscription concerts ended with the area premiere of Higdon's Violin Concerto, so having Higdon back to start this season's series suggests that connective threads have become, well, a connective thread in BSO programming.)
Higdon writes some of the most instantly likable music to be heard today, always rich in engaging ideas and instrumental coloring. It's easy to see why she would have been attracted to the idea of creating specifically for the ensemble of violinists Zach De Pue and Nick Kendall and bassist Ranaan Meyer. While students at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (where Higdon teaches), they discovered a mutual interest in bluegrass, country and jazz and ran with it.
Higdon is just as at home in those styles. Other than fiddler/composer Mark O'Connor, she is surely the best equipped to create a concerto that incorporates them. But Concerto "4-3," in three movements with descriptive titles referencing Higdon's Smoky Mountains roots, left me largely unconvinced on Thursday.
The piece gave the soloists perhaps too much of the limelight. Their extended (and rather repetitive) cadenzas were ripe with twangy bluegrass slides that tended to smooth out whenever the orchestra kicked in. And that orchestral side of things didn't have much substance to it.
The net effect was sort of like seeing a city slicker accenting his Brooks Brothers suit with ostentatious cowboy boots. I had trouble buying it.
That said, the amplified Time for Three guys offered tremendous energy and tightly meshed virtuosity. In passages that called for gradual decrescendos, they also produced expressive power out of the softest wisps of sound. Alsop was, as usual, a secure, attentive partner. The brass executed their snappy licks in the third movement with particular panache.
The trio delivered the fiddler classic "Orange Blossom Special" as an encore and played the heck out of it, earning a hefty, happy roar from the crowd.
If you go
The BSO performs tonight at 8 at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets are $28 to $90. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.