If you are not rushing out of town for the holiday weekend, make room for the latest Baltimore Symphony program. The inclusion of Strauss' sublime Four Last Songs on the lineup is reason enough to catch one of the remaining performances.
The paltry turnout Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall proved disappointing (a bowling league could have operated without encumbrance in many a row of the rear-orchestra level), but the heart-healthy serving of solid German fare onstage hit the spot.
Although there was some ragged articulation during the evening, primarily confined to chords that needed smoother voicing by woodwinds and/or brass, the ensemble otherwise sounded in fine form.
And there was no shortage of expressive nuance from the players. They seemed firmly connected to the wavelength of principal guest conductor designate Markus Stenz, who revealed considerable sensitivity and imagination at every turn. One more sign that his association with the BSO -- the three-year principal guest tenure officially begins in the fall -- is going to be rewarding.
To start things off, Stenz delved tellingly into Weber's "Der Freischutz" Overture, paying particular attention to dynamics and subtle shifts of tempo to underline the tension. The release of that tension in the closing moments took on a genuine glow.
To end the concert, there was a taut, involving account of Schumann's Symphony No. 2, shaped with a keen appreciation for the shifting shades of the light and shadow, propulsion and reflection, in the music.
Stenz gave the Scherzo an especially vibrant workout, with a terrific rush in the coda that had the orchestra pouring on the steam. The conductor allowed plenty of breathing room for the Adagio, which found the woodwind soloists and violins in exquisite form.
The center of the program was devoted to the Strauss songs, which represent a summing up of the composer's art and, in a way, the parting gift of late-romanticism (very late -- this post-World War II music bears little or no relation to what other composers were doing at the time).
The best accounts of the Four Last Songs combine vocal radiance and a keen identification with the poetry (by Hermann Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff).
Heidi Melton, the gifted soprano who did admirable work in the BSO's all-Wagner program a couple years ago, took a while to warm up on Thursday. Intonation slipped in the upper register, and there was more concentration on tone than text.
But the singer soon commanded the stage with her opulent voice, which soared easily and steadily. Melton communicated more and more of the autumnal depth of the words, too, especially in "Beim Schlafengehen" and the concluding "Im Abendrot." I especially loved the singer's elegant portamento and the many rich, rich low notes.
Stenz was a model partner, ensuring that the orchestra did not swamp the soloist. He also brought out subtle details in the scoring (I would have welcomed more spacious slower tempos), and coaxed a warm, flexible response from the players.
Concertmaster Jonathan Carney's solos sounded a little distant, but poetic. Contributions by principal horn Phil Munds impressed greatly, as usual.
Although experiencing the rare beauty of the Four Last Songs would have been enough for me, I could hardly complain about the unexpected encore -- another Strauss song. The rhapsodic "Cacilie" was sung with irresistible ardor and sumptuous tone by Melton, again beautifully supported by Stenz and the ensemble.
The evening made me hope for a lot more of Strauss' vocal music from the BSO. How about a concert version of "Salome"? Or "Elektra." Or "Ariadne." Or "Rosenkavalier." I vote for all of the above.