If you're thinking "Another all-Mozart program? Yawn!" think again. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's focus this week on the composer -- an overture, a violin concerto, a Mass -- generates a consistently satisfying, refreshing experience.
To being with, there's Japanese conductor Masaaki Suzuki, making his BSO debut. A Bach scholar immersed in the sound-world of period instruments, he cannot help but bring a distinctive approach (just as Nicholas McGegan, another early music specialist, does when he's on the podium here).
As evidenced by Thursday's Music Center at Strathmore performance, Suzuki has been successful at getting a lithe, transparent, minimal-vibrato-in-the-strings tone from the ensemble (a compact complement of players is used, in keeping with historically informed performance practice).
It's a reaffirmation of the BSO's valuable flexibility.
The character of the sound was instantly apparent in the curtain-raiser, the Overture to "Don Giovanni," which received a crisp and appropriately theatrical account, notable, in particular, for wide contrasts in dynamics.
The Violin Concerto No. 5, nicknamed the "Turkish" because the finale's exuberant outbursts struck 18th century Austrian ears as foreign (they didn't get around much), is filled with delectable twists and turns that reveal Mozart's uncanny ability to create magic out of even the simplest melody.
A first-rate performance brings out all of this ingenuity, while letting the soloist's own light shine nicely. That was the case Thursday, as Augustin Hadelich, the exceptional German violinist, spun phrases filled with personality.
His tone was sweet, without turning syrupy; his articulation was pristine, but never glib. And he provided fresh cadenzas that gave Mozart's themes all sorts of imaginative dimensions. Note, too, that, in keeping with conventions of the composer's day, Hadelich frequently played along with the orchestra's first violins before breaking into his solos.
Hadelich, who enjoyed smooth rapport with Suzuki and the orchestra, received an encore-inducing reception from the audience. His choice was Paganini's Caprice No. 9, which he delivered with an insouciant touch.
Mozart's Requiem may be his most famously unfinished work. But he left another liturgical piece incomplete, and, like the Requiem, the Mass in C minor (known for good reason as "The Great"), is awfully compelling despite what's missing.
With extended vocal solos and a keen sense of drama, there's an operatic quality to this Mass, a clear sense of occasion (Mozart wrote the lead soprano part for his wife, Constanze). There's also a little showing off here, a sense that the composer wanted people to appreciate what he was capable of in every department -- counterpoint, choral writing, orchestration. A sort of heavenly calling card.
Suzuki shaped the score with a mix of propulsion and graceful lyricism that assured a taut, involving performance, aided by the technically refined, expressively molded response of the BSO. The way the conductor drew out the solemn tread and shaped the decrescendos in the "Qui tollis" section of the "Gloria" was but one example of how he made the music speak with fresh power.
The University of Maryland Concert Choir (Edward Maclary, director) produced admirable clarity, blend, expressive warmth and, in an exhilarating charge through the finale of the "Gloria," terrific fire.
The BSO assembled a sterling quartet of soloists for the occasion. Simona Saturova's silvery soprano provided particular pleasure; her long-breathed account of the sublime "Et incarnatus est," capped by a radiant cadenza, proved especially memorable (the woodwind soloists in this movement sounded equally inspired).
Mezzo Joanne Lunn spun many a vibrant phrase. And though they had much less to sing, Nicholas Phan, one of the most eloquently communicative tenors on the scene today, and rich-voiced bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen nonetheless added greatly to this masterful Mass.