Although it's convenient for some to think of music being divided into totally separate worlds, with the classical variety way over in some isolated corner where only the "elite" indulge in it, there are innumerable connecting, welcoming points between genres. One mission of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's new season is to emphasize such links, programming works that reveal roots planted in folk music or jazz, for example. Last week, bluegrass found its way into the picture via a concerto by Jennifer Higdon featuring a hotshot crossover trio; this week, the folk influences behind familiar pieces by Tchaikovsky and Bartok are being given fresh attention.
On Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore (the program repeats at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall through Sunday), the stage was devoid of orchestral players at the start of the concert. Instead, BSO music director Marin Alsop walked out to introduce Harmonia, a crack ensemble devoted to Eastern European folk music.
The five instrumentalists gave a mini-concert that helped focus the ears anew on the piquant scales and vigorous rhythms that Bartok incorporated into his Concerto for Orchestra, which followed. And Harmonia's dynamic presentation still resonated later, when Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, which has plenty of its own folksy elements, arrived after intermission.
The Bartok score remains a keen test of conductor and orchestra alike. Although there were moments Thursday that could have benefited from a little more urgency, snap and earthiness, the overall effect proved highly satisfying. Alsop had the music well in hand, bringing out the sarcasm of the fourth movement with particular flair and driving the finale along powerfully. The violins, violas and cellos made an especially impressive showing, though there certainly were deftly shaded contributions from the winds and brass as well.
The Tchaikovsky war horse had the distinct advantage of a young, exceptionally sensitive rider on this occasion. Canadian-born, Grammy-winning violinist James Ehnes revealed a refreshing concentration on the actual music in the concerto - no showoff tricks or unduly fussy tempos. Everything flowed with a natural elegance and, in the most songful passages, great eloquence. There might have been a measure or two when the clarity of his articulation slipped a bit, but never the expressive force.
Ehnes' tone had both sweetness and body, easily holding its own against the orchestral forces, which Alsop guided surely. She and the ensemble sounded as fully caught up in this familiar concerto as the soloist, and the result was a remarkably involving performance.