The sacred triumvirate of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven accounts for a crucial portion of what we call classical music, so there are plenty of reasons to program works by all three men on the same evening. There is also a risk of taking such material for granted, coasting on the familiarity of the structures and logical harmonic language.
No worries about that, though, in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's serving of the three composers this week, since Nicholas McGegan is on the podium. He just doesn't seem capable of routine music-making, and the BSO invariably responds strongly to his dynamic approach.
Then there's the bonus of having pianist Jeremy Denk on hand. He's one of the most engaging keyboard artists of our time, as he brilliantly reaffirms here. But wait -- there's more. One of the orchestra's own, principal bassoonist Fei Xie, is also given a solo spot on the bill, and makes the most of it.
Haydn remains woefully, I might even say criminally, under-represented on BSO programming. You'd think people were ashamed of the celebrated "Father of the Symphony," as if the old man had proven to be an embarrassment or was just too dull or something. So it's great to have Haydn's Symphony No. 30 at the start of program, nicer still to have the chance to hear it so vibrantly delivered.
On Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall, where the concert will be repeated Saturday, McGegan was attentive to the smallest of details, as well as the big, spirited picture, and he drew supple playing from the ensemble (reduced in number for these concerts to reflect late-18th-, early-19th-century practice).
You can always count on a surprise from Haydn (the one in his so-called "Surprise" Symphony is just the best known), and it comes in this work in the second movement, when the flute pops out and seems to encourage everyone else to stop and smell the roses. Emily Skala delivered that solo with great charm.
Denk, making his BSO debut, did not just demonstrate pearly tone and impeccable articulation in Mozart's noble Piano Concerto No. 25. The keyboard artists also revealed a breadth of poetic instincts that made the music dance and sing and sigh to equally communicative effect. (One sign of Denk's compelling artistry: Hardly a cough in between movements, when, usually, all manner of eruptions occur in the audience.)
The pianist's alternately playful and penetrating approach kept everything sounding spontaneous, qualities that McGegan likewise encouraged in the orchestra. The woodwinds made shining contributions.
Mozart's Bassoon Concerto might not be one of the composer's greatest achievements, but lesser Mozart is still better than most, and the performers here treated every note as gold. Xie maintained a downright silken tone as he phrased with abundant character and dynamic nuance. His colleagues, smoothly guided by McGegan, offered sensitive support.
Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 wrapped things up in gripping style. McGegan ripped into the first movement, creating an electric current that continued to generate refreshing results throughout. The humor in the score emerged with particular bite, but lyrical moments were never slighted.
Balances between winds and strings could have been smoother in spots, a few chords more evenly produced, but this was still a fine night for the orchestra. It was the kind of all-out, joyous performance that can't help but make you smile.