The penultimate program of the Baltimore Symphony's season balances feel-good orchestral pieces by Osvaldo Golijov and Benjamin Britten against a piano concerto by Johannes Brahms packed with darkly emotional drama. It makes for an engrossing combination.
The orchestra-only portion includes the local premiere of "Sidereus" by Golijov, the Argentine composer with Russian-Jewish roots and a knack for writing music of uncommonly broad appeal.
The BSO was among nearly three dozen orchestras involved in commissioning the work, first performed in Memphis, Tenn., last fall. (Given the score's brevity, the commission presumably didn't strain the budgets of any of those ensembles.)
The forbidding title comes from Galileo's "Sidereus Nuncius" of 1610, a treatise on the astronomer's telescopic observations of our moon and the moons of Jupiter. You might expect such source material to inspire music along the lines of, say, Holst's "The Planets," but Golijov wouldn't be so obvious.
Yes, the opening brass chords evoke something vast and deep, very outer space. And, yes, the ensuing ripples from the strings suggest shards of starlight. But the piece soon settles into a more familiar, earthier groove. As conductor Marin Alsop says jokingly, "Sidereus" combines "minimalism with a tango lesson."
Golijov employs gently pulsating, repetitive patterns and sensual shifts of melody and harmony to develop an increasingly gorgeous sonic fabric. There's no grand statement here, just a kind of warming glow, the sort you might feel when you get a crisp view of a night sky with a full moon.
Alsop, who connects to minimalist idioms with second-nature assurance, shaped this modestly scaled tone poem sensitively and drew stylish playing from the orchestra on Thursday at the Music Center at Strathmore (the program's final performance is Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff Hall).
"Sidereus" served as a nice warm-up for Britten's brilliant showpiece, "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra." Although composed for the purpose indicated by the title, this is way above Music 101.
Britten spins variations and a fugue out of a theme by Henry Purcell, creating in the process an imaginative, often witty exploration of what makes an orchestra tick. At the opening and close, everyone is on deck, digging gleefully into the material. In between, each section gets a chance to shine on its own or in dialogue with other sections.
The score provided a fine opportunity for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to demonstrate its current state. Alsop's stewardship since 2007 has resulted in what you might call a lean, mean machine (some of the leanness stems from the fact that the orchestra can't afford an ideal strength of 100 or so members). There is a discipline and attentiveness to the playing, week after week.
Those qualities were much in evidence as Alsop led the musicians through Britten's colorful workout. The brass players came through with particular vitality.
After intermission came the mood shift. There is nothing quite so ominous as the opening of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1; the music doesn't so much start as erupt. For all of the lyricism that emerges subsequently, including in the sublime Adagio, a feeling of volatility is never far from the surface. This is very eventful stuff.
The titanic concerto requires a soloist with a formidable technique and a fertile artistic mind. That the BSO has in Emanuel Ax. He's the thinking man's virtuoso, a pianist who doesn't mistake bravura for bravado. He uses his digital might solely in the service of the music, never himself.
Ax held his power in reserve Thursday so that each explosive passage registered all the more strikingly. And while the force was certainly impressive, especially in the urgent finale, the level of intimacy that the pianist achieved in the first two movements proved equally remarkable. Ax burrowed into the music, extracting poetic ore as he went.
Alsop was a committed partner on the podium. She took her time with the long orchestral opening of the concerto, allowing the main themes to be expressed with considerable weight, and she proceeded to maintain supple coordination between soloist and ensemble. The BSO again sounded firm and vibrant, with some beautifully molded contributions from the woodwinds along the way.
Other pianists, conductors and orchestras have been known to deliver this work with more visceral impact (the music can certainly handle a more aggressive approach), but this performance had an eloquence that generated its own highly satisfying rewards.
If you go
The BSO performs at 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. $33-$66. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun