If the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra were to appoint a principal guest conductor, I wouldn't be surprised to see Yan Pascal Tortelier get the nod.
The Frenchman returns regularly to the BSO podium and, just as regularly, gets notable results. He did so again over the weekend, substituting for the originally announced John Storgards, chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic (no explanation was announced for Storgards' non-appearance).
On Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff Hall, Tortelier led an especially potent account of Sibelius' brooding Symphony No. 1. From the opening, there was a palpable tension in the performance that didn't let up for a second.
Among the highlights was the way the conductor masterfully gauged the opening movement to make its explosive outbursts as striking as its hushed, unsettled close. And when it came to the finale's big, noble theme, Tortelier gave it plenty of space and drew from the ensemble an extra degree of ardent force.
Vivid solos by principal clarinetist Steven Barta and principal timpanist James Wyman added greatly to a performance that found the BSO in peak form.
The first half of the program opened with Vaughan Williams' sumptuous "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis," which gave the orchestra's strings a chance to shine. Tortelier paced the music beautifully and brought out its nostalgic quality with considerable subtlety, aided by contributions from the small group of vibrato-less players placed at the rear of the stage, sounding like time-travelers.
Also on the bill was Mendelssohn's well-worn Violin Concerto, which emerged with a good deal of freshness thanks to soloist Baiba Skride. Her colorful, often muscular tone effectively underlined the tensile qualities in the score, without slighting the sweeter side. The violinist's technical assurance proved impressive as well, particularly in the sprightly finale.
Tortelier provided supple partnering, and the ensemble, reduced in number to chamber orchestra size, did cohesive, nuanced work.