Thematic programs can get a little forced or cute (count on marketing departments to exploit the slightest cutesy angle), but they can also make good sense and lead in some interesting directions. Consider Saturday's night's offering by the Concert Artists of Baltimore at the Gordon Center in Owings Mills.
Although there must have been two or three million programs around the world given the hook "Invitation to the Dance" by now, this one managed to avoid the most obvious choices. Conductor Edward Polochick paired two orchestral items filled with infectious folk tunes and rhythms: Dvorak's Czech Suite and Kodaly's Dances of Galanta. A pair of piano/orchestra works also fulfilled the dance theme: Chopin's Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise and Liszt's Totentanz ("Dance of Death"). These choices, in turn, yielded a sub-theme -- Eastern European composers, with two Hungarians, a Czech and a Pole. It all added up to an entertaining concert that found the ensemble operating on all cylinders.
At chamber orchestra size, the group can't fill out all of the tonal colors in the Dvorak and Kodaly pieces, but the musicians nonetheless produced a great deal of warmth and nuance as Polochick molded both scores in characterful style. The woodwinds made an impressive showing; clarinetist David Drosinos, in particular, did shining work in the Dances of Galanta.
The Chopin and Liszt items featured pianist Mark Markham, a very successful alum and former faculty member of Peabody. He had the Andante spianato spinning beautifully and gave the Polonaise an effective drive, enhanced by a big, rich tone for the music's most energetic moments. Totentanz is a lot of sound and fury, signifying very little, but Markham knew how to get the most out of it, producing abundant power for Liszt's noisiest, flashiest variations on the ancient Dies Irae chant and sensitively using a wide palette of tone coloring whenever the bluster subsided. Polochick and his players partnered the pianist smoothly.
PHOTO COURTESY OF CONCERT ARTISTS OF BALTIMORE