The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's annual gala had extra significance this year, marking the start of the organization's 100th season. For such an occasion, a prominent guest star was in order. Keyboard phenomenon Lang Lang fit the bill perfectly, assuring a hearty turnout Saturday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
That Lang Lang got his first big career boost from the BSO in the late 1990s, when he was a teen, made the choice all the more appropriate. And in the absence of music director Marin Alsop, the orchestra welcomed back another musician from the past to help with the gala -- Christopher Seaman, conductor in residence from 1987 to 1998.
(Alsop was busy Saturday in London, leading the Last Night of the Proms concert at Royal Albert Hall. In 2013, Alsop became the first woman to conduct the event since the Proms was established in 1895. This year, she told the crowd she was "proud to be the first second woman" to do so.)
Gala concerts do not necessarily involve memorable music-making. The primary focus is raising money -- gross proceeds this year were expected to be around $900,000 -- and entertaining all the folks responsible for giving that money.
After the obligatory speeches, thank-yous, shout-outs to prominent politicians in attendance and the national anthem, Saturday's program began in unpromising fashion with a square, undercharged account of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4. The noble theme at the heart of the piece could have used a lot more heart and spaciousness.
The delectably atmospheric showpiece by Dukas, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," found conductor and orchestra much more satisfying. The music emerged with clarity and fresh color.
What the well-filled house was really waiting for, of course, was Lang Lang. He came onstage to a huge ovation and generated an even bigger response following his performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2.
Such a meaty, romantic score is catnip to Lang Lang, who milked the lyrical themes with terrific intensity and negotiated every technical challenge with his typical aplomb.
The pianist's performance, supported in generally firm fashion by Seaman and the BSO, was volatile, prone to whims and bursts. The sense of spontaneity certainly proved arresting, though there were unfortunate side effects -- notes in the middle of otherwise smooth, elegant phrases that suddenly got hammered out for no apparent reason, that sort of thing.
If such flourishes made the music sound rather neurotic, Lang Lang's approach could also generate poetic effects, as in the second movement cadenza, when he achieved prismatic, often exquisite nuances of articulation and phrasing.
It has become a tradition at BSO galas to involve a contingent of OrchKids, the BSO's commendable educational program offered in several city schools.
The encore spot on Saturday found several OrchKids participants, as well as members of the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestra, joining Lang Lang and the BSO. They all piled into a rhapsodic arrangement (by the BSO's clever assistant conductor Nick Hersh) of Pharrell Williams' "Happy," punctuated by Lang Lang doing short riffs on popular concertos.
The young students also managed to get the high-society/high-government-peppered crowd up on its feet and, more or less, dancing the Nae Nae. If I had managed to sneak some video of that, I'd have a viral sensation on my hands.