The latest program from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is as safe as it comes — an old-fashioned mix of 19th-century fare.
But with one of the BSO's regular guests, German-born conductor Jun Markl, back on the podium, you can count on considerable energy and sensitivity to give the familiar fare a good jolt.
Those qualities are also much in evidence from the other guest for this program, German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser, in his BSO debut.
On Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, Markl got things started with a genial account of Dvorak's lovely Serenade for Strings. The violins didn't sound thoroughly settled — there were some frayed edges in the tone — but they and the other sections spun out some expressive phrases, especially in the Larghetto.
Brahms' Symphony No. 3, with its constant shift between sunlight and shadow, is one of the glories of the Romantic era. There's a very intimate quality to the music, as if the composer were pouring out some secrets (the then-50-year-old Brahms was infatuated with a singer half his age when he wrote the piece).
There's a clear sense of a journey, too. Reaching its destination, signaled by the sound of luminous strings, can be richly satisfying, as it was here.
Markl paced the score masterfully. There was an underlying urgency but plenty of space above for melodic lines to unfold. The conductor's ear for the refined instrumental coloring in the symphony paid dividends, nowhere more so than when, with the smallest of gestures, he eloquently sculpted tender phrases of the opening movement's second theme.
The woodwinds articulated those phrases with great subtlety, one of the many pleasures in a performance that found the whole orchestra sounding radiant.
Conductor and ensemble provided supple partnering for Moser in Tchaikovsky's delectable “Variations on a Rococo Theme.” The cellist had the audience in his corner with the first impish grin that appeared on his face to go with a playful little turn of phrase. And Moser kept finding such turns, using a range of dynamic nuances in the process.
He sustained a golden, finely focused tone throughout and handled the work's technical demands with ease. The performance had a spontaneous spark that gave the most lyrical passages an extra glow and lit up the most lighthearted ones in disarming fashion.