Last weekend found two of the area's orchestral ensembles in fine form.
Concert Artists of Baltimore offered an imaginative mix of standard and far-from-standard fare Saturday night at the Gordon Center.
The familiar work was Mendelssohn's "Scottish Symphony," which received an absorbing performance conducted by Edward Polochick.
He paid great attention to subtle details, especially the woodwind voices, and he ensured that the most atmospheric elements in the score came through vividly (slicing string attacks in the finale evoked a brisk highland breeze). The Adagio, the symphony's eloquent heart, was nobly phrased.
The orchestra sounded cohesive and spirited. As usual, the theater's wonderful acoustics enriched the tone considerably.
As for the less familiar fare, that came from Arthur Benjamin, the Australian-born composer who some of us know primarily for his Elgar-on-steroids cantata "The Storm Clouds," used in both versions of Hitchock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much." (I'd sure love to hear that in concert someday -- maybe with the whole audience being invited to do the scream at the very point where Edna Best, in the 1934 film, and Doris Day, in the 1956 remake, help thwart an assassination.)
Benjamin's 1935 "Romantic Fantasy" for violin, viola and orchestra may not be the most coherrent work in the repertoire, but it is filled with attractive, soaring melodies that give the two solo instruments a great workout. The orchestral side of things is richly colored.
Violinist Anton Miller and violist Rita Porfiris sailed through the piece with admirable expressive flair and technical poise, smoothly backed by conductor and ensemble. The soloists tossed in a welcome encore -- a souped-up version of the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia that included a wry touch of Piazzolla -- and played the heck out of it.
Polochick also led the orchestra in two delicious, light pieces by Benjamin, including "Jamaican Rumba," which brought the composer great popularity in the late-1930s.
On Sunday afternoon, the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra convened only its string players at Kraushaar Auditorium for an all-out feast of lyricism.
The program opened with the B minor String Symphony (No. 10) by a teen-aged Mendelssohn, who already knew how to spin songful melodic lines masterfully. Conductor Markand Thakar shaped the score with an elegant touch and drew lithe, mostly spot-on playing.
The Holberg Suite, Grieg's salute to Norwegian-born literary figure Ludvig Holberg, puts baroque dance forms through a romantic prism. Thakar showed considerable sensitivity to the music's refined contours and rhythmic flow. The strings responded with a warm, supple performance.
Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence," originally for string sextet, makes an easy transition to string orchestra. It's so effective in the larger form that I wish it were programmed far more often that way, providing a nice substitute for the ubiquitous Serenade for Strings.
Thakar had the score spinning along beautifully, allowing room for tender phrases to breathe and putting extra drive into the spirited passages (the finale flew by in a delicious whirl). There may have been a frayed note here or there, but the ensemble gave an impressive performance, tapping into the music's poetry and passion with equal flair. Violin, viola and cello solos in the Adagio emerged were tenderly delivered.
(Photo of Markand Thakar in thumbnail by Dennis Drenner)