The year is not even a week old, and there's a contender for highlight of the 2014 music season in Baltimore.
OK, maybe that's too premature and silly a statement. But if, like me, you feel there are few things more perfectly fashioned than a waltz by Johann Strauss and few things more satisfying than a stylish performance of same, then you'll find this weekend's Strauss-filled program by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's a very satisfying experience.
Thanks to the popularity of the Vienna Philharmonic's globally broadcast New Year's Day Concert, lots of orchestras have tried cashing in on the idea of packaging music of the Waltz King and his peers at this time of year.
To tell the truth, I tend to avoid such imitative programs, suspicious that they will fall too far short of the real McCoy. Non-Viennese orchestras usually can't get the knack of the idiomatic lilt of a genuine Viennese waltz; other refinements of phrasing are likely to elude them, too.
The notes will be all there, of course, and there may be plenty of spark in the playing as well, but it just doesn't have that certain something. Call it charm, or elegance. There can also be a bittersweet taste lurking beneath the whipped cream on a lot of great waltzes, a sense of longing, or loss, or maybe just a breath of reality -- an awareness that the dance will have to end, for all of us.
I was not expecting to find so many of those layers in the BSO's performance Saturday night at Meyerhoff Hall conducted by Andrew Grams. (If you missed it, there's a repeat Sunday afternoon.)
Grams, a Severn-raised Baltimore School for the Arts alum who has been building a solid international career, revealed remarkable skill and sensitivity. With a minimum of time-beating (his baton was often motionless), he sculpted beautifully nuanced music-making that allowed for plenty of rubato and considerable range of dynamic levels. Nary a routine oom-pah-pah all night.
Although the ensemble sounded slightly bumpy in the intro to the "Acceleration" Waltz, which opened the program, the playing that followed was as polished as it was supple. In that Strauss gem, Grams made a point of varying some of the repeats slightly, an effective touch that also put an extra glow on his account of Franz Lehar's noble "Gold and Silver" Waltz.
A couple of Struass polkas and his "Die Fledermaus" Oveture emerged with abundant snap, as did the obligatory encore -- "Radetzky" March by Johann, Sr. -- complete with audience participation (a lot of folks have clearly paid attention to all those New Year's Day Concerts from Vienna).
The BSO strings purred nicely all evening. There were refined efforts from the brass and winds, notably oboist Michael Lisicky. The percussion, too, seemed fully into the spirit.
The program also featured the appealing soprano Lauren Snouffer, whose sweetly phrased account of "Vilja" from Lehar's "The Merry Widow" was a highlight. Her top register wasn't always strain-free, but her singing had admirable clarity and personality, including a couple of Strauss arias and two by Mozart, especially "Deh vieni non tardar" from "The Marriage of Figaro."
Nothing against Mozart, but I would rather have had more Viennese items on the bill instead, especially some of the less obvious ones -- I'd bet Snouffer could do a lovely job with, say, "Im chambre separee" from Richard Heuberger's "Der Opernball."