Officially, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's 2013-14 season opened last week. Musically, I'd say it really got going last night, when the ensemble kicked into high gear to deliver sterling performances of works by Leonard Bernstein and Maurice Ravel.
Music director Marin Alsop has given Bernstein, her mentor, a prominent place in the BSO's programming and discography -- a Naxos recording of his compelling "Mass" earned a Grammy nomination a few years ago.
This week, Alsop is focusing on the composer's Symphony No. 2, "Age of Anxiety," which Naxos will record during concerts at Meyerhoff Hall Friday and Saturday.
The 1949 score is pure Bernstein -- intellectual, sensual, philosophical. He drew his inspiration from W.H. Auden's epic poem about loneliness, longing and lost ideals in a world consumed by war. Even without knowing about the characters and events in that poem, it is possible to connect strongly with the symphony.
This vivid drama-in-sound is fueled by intricate thematic development and brilliant orchestration that includes a pivotal, almost concerto-like role for solo piano. The symphony is capped by an intense outpouring of emotion that doesn't really resolve all the issues raised, but has a remarkable way of gripping you, making you think there really could be cleansing light at the end of the tunnel.
On Thursday at the Music Center at Strathmore, Alsop offered the audience a brief introduction to "Age of Anxiety" with well-chosen excerpts from the orchestra and stellar soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (the conductor has a flair for this music appreciation side of the job).
Alsop then proceeded to guide the forces through a thoroughly absorbing account of this unusual symphony. She allowed plenty of room for the Prologue to unfold (the clarinet soloists offered sensitively shaded playing here); she gave the closing measures of Part 1 a terrific push; she tapped deeply into the solemn beauty of the "Dirge."
In the jazzed "Masque," a tour de force for piano and percussion, the conductor ensured that the sense of forced levity could be detected.
Through it all, Thibaudet did sensational work at the keyboard, not just articulating with exceptional clarity, even in the dizzying flourishes of the "Masque," but communicating richly each phrase.
The BSO likewise demonstrated command and commitment. The strings produced a taut, penetrating tone; the winds and brass delivered plenty of color; the percussion section came through in style. Pianist Lura Johnson made deft contributions on the upright, which, in one of Bernstein's most inspired touches, serves as a kind of echo of the front-and-center piano.
The second half of the program was devoted to Ravel. His alternately jazzy and poetic Piano Concerto in G has long been a specialty of Thibaudet's. He brought to the score an exquisite tonal palette, seamless technique and, in the outer movements, an exhilarating spontaneity.
Alsop not only kept keyboard and orchestra in tight alignment, but drew finely detailed work from her players (the diminuendo at the end of the second movement proved particularly effective). Woodwind solos emerged with particular elegance.
The Suite No. 2 from Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe," a masterpiece of melodic and harmonic sensuality, and a landmark lesson in prismatic orchestration, had Alsop and the BSO climbing to one of the finest peaks of their collaboration so far.
From the start, the conductor offered nuanced phrases and abundant rhythmic elasticity. These were exactly the subtleties I missed last week in the performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" (yes, there are differences between Russian and French styles, but both benefit from sensitive touches).
There was a wealth of dynamic shading from the orchestra. The strings, in particular, purred and shimmered impressively, but the whole ensemble seemed fully caught up in Ravel's magical world.
To open the program, Alsop offered Gershwin's ingenious, infectious "Cuban Overture," served up with a good deal of spice. Given how much Bernstein absorbed of Gershwin, and how much Gershwin absorbed of Ravel, it was a perfect curtain-raiser for the evening.