Peter Oundjian leads Baltimore Symphony, Choral Arts in Beethoven, Bruckner

Beethoven's Ninth, never too far from earshot in Baltimore, is back this week, but with a most welcome companion piece -- Bruckner's "Te Deum."

And the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has a most welcome companion to conduct this pairing -- Peter Oundjian, who made a memorable appearance with the ensemble in 2009 and is generating telling results again.

Last night's concert at the Meyerhoff produced the most consistently satisfying account of the Ninth I've heard the BSO give. If the Bruckner performance wasn't as solid, it stirred nonetheless.

Oundjian, music director of the excellent Toronto Symphony Orchestra, managed to breathe a great deal of fresh life into the venerable Beethoven work. He did so not by applying any wildly unconventional touches (I wouldn't have minded those a bit, of course), but simply by ...

ensuring a level of intensity from start to finish.

He drew out the sense of mystery, even fear, in the first movement, getting the orchestra to put an extra bite into dynamic accents and dark chords. The Scherzo was driven along, but never at the expense of subtlety and variety of expression; the contrasting trio section emerged with a remarkable glow, thanks to Oundjian's lyrical phrasing and tender playing by the woodwinds.

The Adagio was taken closer to the kind of tempo common in the good old days, before the authenticity movement scared the heck out of so many musicians. The unhurried approach allowed the poetic depth to register richly, and the warmth of the BSO's strings to be savored.

Oundjian saw to it that the finale's frantic start had an extra kick. Throughout that movement, he balanced momentum and weightiness, holding the disparate portions of the score together to make one cohesive statement.

The Baltimore Choral Arts Society, prepared by director Tom Hall, rose to the occasion impressively. Except in the "Seid umschlungen" passage, when the men encountered tonal thinness and strain, the chorus sustained a smooth, full-bodied sound and articulated with admirable clarity.

The guest soloists proved a valiant lot. Morris Robinson filled the hall with his deep, resonant bass. Tenor Nicholas Phan, stepping in for an indisposed Brandon Jovanovich, found top notes a stretch, but the rest emerged warm and sure, and his phrasing was full of vitality.

Soprano Joyce El-Khoury, whose opera performances I have admired at Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival, did shining work. Mezzo Mary Phillips completed the quartet ably.

I've said often that we don't hear enough Bruckner here; this was the first time his "Te Deum" has been  programmed by the nearly century-old BSO. Seriously overdue. 

Oundjian's tempos felt rushed, especially in the final section, when Bruckner quotes the soulful theme from his Seventh Symphony; the grandeur was missing. Still, the propulsive approach had its rewards -- the coda proved decidedly uplifting -- and the conductor's sensitivity to dynamic contrasts paid off nicely.

There was plenty of vivid singing from the chorus and the soloists (Phan did particularly eloquent work), but the orchestra didn't seem entirely settled into the notes. My guess is that the performances tonight and Saturday will be hotter. 


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