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Carlos Kalmar makes welcome return to BSO podium

If you missed Thursday night's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert at Meyerhoff Hall -- and, based on a glance around the room, a whole heckuva lot of you missed it -- there's another chance Friday (Strathmore gets the program Saturday). It's time well spent, I'd say.

Carlos Kalmar, music director of the Oregon Symphony, is back for another podium visit and, as usual, leads the BSO with a calm authority that yields a fully committed response.

In the big-ticket item on the bill, a 10-movement suite from Prokofiev's brilliant and riveting ballet "Romeo and Juliet," Kalmar did not burrow as deeply as some into the score's emotional turbulence. (I like more heart-on-sleeve passion and even a slight tinge of foreboding in the balcony scene, and an extra dollop of pathos in the finale, but, then, I'm a little odd.)

What the conductor did wonderfully, though, was get the lighter passages of the score to sparkle and even dazzle. "Juliet the Young Girl" and the droll folk dance movement were two examples. In the stunning "Death of Tybalt," Kalmar set a breathless, exciting pace for the scherzo portion (the BSO violins outdid themselves here), and then unleashed plenty of dramatic weight for the remainder.

Some frayed edges popped up in the performance of the suite, but they were easily swept away by the overall polish and power of the playing. The brass, in particular, delivered jolt after biting jolt.

At the start of the evening, the BSO also sounded on form as Kalmar led a vivid account of "Phenomenon," a cool 2004 work by Thai composer Narong Prangcharoen. Inspired by the seemingly inexplicable "Naga Fireballs," which rise out of a spot on the Mekong River ever year, the piece is eventful and spooky, especially at the end, when slithering violins send melodic lines dissipating into the ether.

The other piece on the program was Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto No. 3, which doesn't get a lot of attention these days. It's very much in the Liszt mold, most clearly in the finale, with its bold and bracing theme. For all of the bluster around the edges, though, this is thoroughly French music, and a thoroughly French soloist was on hand to see that it came through in fine style. 

Jean-Philippe Collard, a poker-faced and poker-bodied pianist who made his debut 40 years ago, brought plenty of technique, tone and temperament to the concerto (he had the score discreetly in front of him, but hardly seemed dependent on it). His phrasing was always elegant, even when dashing through octaves.

Kalmar provided supple support, and the orchestra responded with a classy touch that mirrored Collard's. In the second movement, flute (Beverly Crawford) and oboe (Michael Lisicky) solos sang out beautifully, and the cellos section likewise shone when it got a melodic line to itself.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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