Weekend in Review (Part 2): Baltimore Symphony's all-Tchaikovsky night

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's typically eclectic summer season continued over the weekend with an all-Tchaikovsky program Saturday night delivered at the Meyerhoff before a far-from-sizable audience. The concert, which will be repeated July 17 at Strathmore, featured two teenage musicians from the pre-college division of the Juilliard School being groomed for solo careers.

The conductor was from the ranks of the BSO -- Christian Colberg, a 17-year veteran and current assistant principal of the viola section who is leaving the ensemble shortly to become principal violist of the Cincinnati Symphony (the BSO's former principal cellist, Ilya Finkelshteyn, joined that orchestra last year). Colberg, whose podium interests have been been encouraged by Marin Alsop, is going to missed, and not just for his quality music-making. He's also a fine photographer; his portrait shots of his colleagues (you can find them in the Meyerhoff lobby and on the BSO's Web site) are exceptional.


The conductor got things started Saturday with a brisk, straight-ahead account of "Caprciccio Italien" that really caught fire in the coda; the playing was crisp and tidy. The rest of the evening was devoted to Tchaikovsky's most popular concertos.

The one for violin found Sirena Huang producing a substantial tone, a mostly impeccable technique and a remarkable amount of deeply expressive phrasing. Despite her youth, she sounded like

someone who has lived quite a while with the score, long enough to feel confident putting her own stamp on it. There are always, of course, more nuances to be found, even in music as familiar as this, but Huang's performance revealed considerable personality and poetic weight. It would be interesting to check on her progress a few years from now.

Conrad Tao, who tackled the Piano Concerto No. 1, was less of a surprise. The world never lacks for keyboard virtuosos, even ones who aren't yet old enough to order a beer. Tao's digital command was established quickly, and the most daunting octave passages in the first movement were dispatched fearlessly at the supersonic speed expected today. In a welcome departure from many a budding pianist jumping on this war horse, Tao did not try a lot of tempo manipulation and elongated expressiveness. But he also missed chances to explore the softer end of the dynamic range and the more coloristic possibilities of articulation, especially in the Andante, which he pushed his way through rather inelegantly. In the end, I found it a relatively routine, though certainly entertaining, performance.

Colberg proved attentive to both soloists and drew from the orchestra a good deal of warm-hearted playing in each work.

Tao, by the way, bounded back onstage for an encore after his concerto spot. He offered a brisk, muscular account of  Rachmaninoff' B-flat major Prelude, Op. 23, No. 2. Here's a video clip of the pianist playing this same piece on another occasion, when he shaped the music with a little more variety of phrase than he did Saturday: