The way young American pianist Conrad Tao sprinted onstage at the Music Center of Strathmore to join the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night raised expectations for dynamic music-making. That's just what he delivered in Shostakovich's daring, often cheeky Piano Concerto No. 1.
Tao possesses startling technical elan and an ability to communicate clearly, no matter how thorny a score may become. He also has a hefty dash of charm.
Those traits could not be more tailor-made for the maverick Shostakovich work, which finds the composer tweaking the concerto genre and tossing in all sorts of surprises. The first is the presence of a solo trumpet that challenges the keyboard for attention; the rest of the orchestration calls only for strings.
Then there is the swing between the wild and crazy comedy of the outer movements and the exceptionally sober, poignant musings in the middle. Think Marx Brothers movie -- with one by Ingmar Bergman popping up halfway through.
To all of this, the informally attired Tao brought remarkable spontaneity and colorful phrasing. And even in the most raucous, jazzy portions of the finale, he managed to avoid a clangy tone. There was always musicality, not just virtuosity, at every turn.
BSO principal trumpet Andrew Balio was his usual unflappable, pearly-toned self, sculpting the bittersweet, muted phrases at the close of the Lento movement with particular sensitivity. Guest conductor Hannu Lintu offered attentive partnering and drew a stylish response from the ensemble.
Tao happily offered an encore, tearing into the thunderous finale of Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 7 with a ferocity and velocity that seemed in danger of causing self-combustion.
Two orchestral greatest hits provided bookends for the program. Lintu got the evening started with a taut account of Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3, which showed off the BSO's well-balanced tone and finesse of articulation (the pianissimo shading at the opening proved especially effective).
Brahms' open-hearted Symphony No. 2 provided a generally satisfying close. Lintu has been more individualistic and compelling on previous BSO visits, but he had the music unfolding with a natural, often elegant flow.
Other than a couple of uneven entrances in the finale, the BSO did cohesive, vibrant work. Philip Munds molded the horn solo in the closing minutes of the first movement with notable eloquence. The woodwind section's warm and supple playing in the third movement was another highlight.