Baltimore Symphony jumps into the new season

Judging by the Baltimore Symphony's concerts over the weekend, it would be perfectly reasonable to assume that this is going to be a very successful new season with houses full of extremely enthusiastic people.

Saturday night's at Meyerhoff Hall gala took in nearly $800,000, a sum in line with recent years, and certainly respectable given the lingering nightmare of the Great Recession. The gussied-up and casually attired folks seemed equally entertained by a Latin-theme program (anticipating National Hispanic Heritage Month, which, I'm sure, everyone appreciated), and no wonder. It was an entertaining program.

First came the speeches, of course. There was a particularly hearty ovation when gala chair Lou Cestello spoke of how the BSO musicians had been "selfless giving back in the short term" so the organization could improve its long-term outlook. Another burst of applause greeted Cestello's announcement that PNC Bank would donate $500,000 to the BSO to help underwrite reduced ticket prices for the season. A couple of videos, including the BSO-related excerpt from a recent "60 Minutes" show, were effectively woven into the evening to remind people of the orchestra's commitment to education.

As for the actual concert, there may have been

a couple of less-than-stellar moments in the playing, but the ensemble was basically in sturdy and, certainly, dynamic shape. Music director Marin Alsop was, as usual, a continual source of rhythmic energy, charging through the irresistible "Malambo" from Ginastera's "Estancia" and finding welcome nuance in popular selections by Bizet and de Falla (the latter were accompanied by flamenco dancers Anna Menendez and Edwin Aparicio).

It's always refreshing to hear the bittersweet aria from Villa-Lobos' "Bachiana Brasileira" No. 5 for soprano and eight cellos; Jennifer Edwards was the elegant soloist. And it was a cool idea to add a movement from Rodrigo's "Concierto Andaluz," a composition worthy of more exposure; four guitarists from Peabody took the collective solo role with aplomb.

The gala's star attraction was violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, who can be counted on to generate sparks. She did so here in Leonid Desyatnikov's imaginative arrangement of Piazzolla's "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires," which turns the tango-infused music into a violin concerto-like answer to Vivaldi's universally popular "Four Seasons." 

It's a clever, vibrant score filled with sultry tunes and a wealth of string-generated sound effects, including percussive ones. The wild disintegration at the end of the "Summer" movement is one of the most enjoyable bits. Salerno-Sonnenberg dug into the material mightily and enjoyed tight partnering from Alsop and the ensemble. The long, moody cello solo in the "Autumn" was eloquently played by Chang Woo Lee.

On Friday night, the BSO drew a capacity crowd to Strathmore -- the snaking Will Call line reminded me of the scene in front of Disney World rides -- for a season preview program. The turnout sent a pretty clear sign that the BSO's second home in Montgomery County was a wise investment.

I caught the first half of the program, which found Alsop leading the orchestra in movements from symphonies by Schumann and Prokofiev, as well as a taste of the fascinating Mahler arrangements that will be part of the season. Ilyich Rivas, the 17-year-old BSO/Peabody Conducting Fellow, took the podium for a sampling of his October subscription concert debut. He coaxed a gently shaded performance of the "Blumine" movement Mahler originally intended for his first symphony.

The high point for me, I confess, was John Williams' indelible music from "Star Wars," and I'm not even that much of a "Star Wars" fan. Alsop treated the score like it was top-drawer Wagner or Holst (instead of just imitation Wagner and Holst), and it really was great fun to hear the orchestra deliver it with such gusto.

The idea of a season preview program makes a lot of sense. I'm told that Baltimore BSO fans will probably get to attend one next year for the first time at the Meyheroff (they've only been done at Strathmore so far).


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