For 10 years, just about the only negative thought ever heard about the Music Center at Strathmore is the annoying traffic so often encountered by those trying to get there from, say, Baltimore.
Sure enough, I spent a lot of time crawling past an accident site on the Capital Beltway Thursday night on my way to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's concert marking a decade at Strathmore. But, as usual, rewards inside the unusually inviting, acoustically satisfying venue made up for the travel issues.
Given the occasion, there were some speeches and extras, including a couple of videos touting the BSO's valuable educational outreach at Strathmore and in Montgomery County schools.
There was room, too, for a musical bonus. BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney, who is also artistic director of the Strathmore-based Maryland Classic Youth Orchestra, switched to viola to partner the clearly gifted 16-year-old concertmaster of that ensemble, violinist Evelyn Song. The two delivered an elegant account of a movement from Bruch's Double Concerto (originally for clarinet and viola). Always reassuring to hear young, expressive talent.
The bulk of the evening was devoted to lushly lyrical works by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Ottorino Respighi, who were contemporaries and even had Russia in common -- Rachmaninoff's birthplace, of course, but also where the Italian Respighi went to study orchestration (with Rimsky-Korsakov).
Rachmaninoff's evergreen Piano Concerto No. 2 got things started with the formidable Garrick Ohlsson as soloist -- even more formidable, given that close-up video of his performance was projected on a large screen above the stage.
Ohlsson and BSO music director Marin Alsop were in no hurry. Tempos were broad, but the spaciousness wasn't always accompanied by enough underlying tension, so the performance felt draggy until the finale.
The compensation was in the pianist's rock-solid technique, sensitive phrasing, and ability to summon quite a range of colors from the keyboard. The BSO players also produced considerable tonal vividness along the way.
Respighi's reputation rests largely on a few prismatic, atmospheric pieces for orchestra. Before turning to the most famous of them, "Pines of Rome," Alsop led the ensemble in a beautifully molded, generally well-played portion of the less often encountered "Church Windows" (the complete work will be performed Friday and Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall).
There was much to savor when the musicians turned to "Pines of Rome," the Respighi equivalent to a 3-D movie.
The lower strings (with nine, rather that the usual eight, basses now) made a wonderfully deep sound; the violins had a satiny sheen; the brass (reinforced in the balcony) poured on the sonic fire at the end. Several finely shaded efforts by soloists within the ensemble enhanced the performance, among them Jane Marvine (English horn), Steven Barta (clarinet), Rene Hernandez (trumpet) and Lura Johnson (piano).
All the while, Alsop's keen sense of timing and dynamic contrast helped make the score feel fresh and involving.