Russian repertoire was so prevalent and played so passionately during Yuri Temirkanov's tenure at the helm of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra that it seemed to some people that there was no point in touching such music again. I confess I entertained that notion myself for a little while.
The tendency to romanticize the Temrikanov years is absolutely understandable, but not all that productive. The world goes on. So does the music. And it sure went on stirringly Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall.
A program of Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich -- Temirkanov territory all the way -- found not just the orchestra in great form, but also music director Marin Alsop, not to mention guest artist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. I think it would take some pretty nifty reasoning to dismiss this performance as below par.
Right from the start, in Rachmaninoff's bittersweet "Vocalise," the quality of the ensemble was readily apparent, the technical suppleness, the attention to tonal cohesion. More to the point, there was genuine warmth in the playing as Alsop molded the score with a sensitive touch, ensuring that rubato and dynamic crests sounded natural.
That sensitivity was just as apparent at the end of the evening when Alsop turned to the same composer's Symphonic Dances. The dark waltz, in particular, was given abundant, eloquent nuance.
The moody middle section of the other two dances likewise found the conductor encouraging and getting expressive subtleties from the orchestra (the woodwind soloists sounded especially beautiful). As for vigorous passages, they emerged with a potent bite, aided by some extra-vivid efforts by the brass and percussion. Throughout, the BSO strings sustained commendable polish and a glowing sound.
In between the Rachmaninoff items was one of the most absorbing of the many profound works by Shostakovich, the Violin Concerto No. 1. It's like a diary written in the dead of night, full of worry and questioning, interrupted by sarcasm and irony.
Salerno-Sonnenberg can always be counted on to make a personal statement through any piece she plays. That sometimes means a whole lot more of the violinist than the composer (I still recall some wildly idiosyncratic Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky concertos), but what she achieved here was thoroughly persuasive and gripping.
I know of no higher praise in these days of restless audiences than to note the absence of coughing during the long, introspective first and third movements. It was if everyone was afraid to move, for fear of missing a note or the troubled feeling behind each.
Salerno-Sonnberg's impeccable intonation, richly varied tone colors and taut phrasing impressed greatly. So did the rapport between violinist, Alsop and the orchestra (a couple of spots in the scherzo and finale could have been more tightly in sync). The result was an extraordinary emotional tension, from beginning to end. The soul of Shostakovich seemed very much a presence in the hall.