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Baltimore Symphony produces sparks with program of Adams, Mendelssohn, Dvorak

OK, now the season really has started.

I found last week's official start of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's subscription concert series ever so slightly below par; too many technical flubs for comfort in Mahler's Seventh, which also could have benefited from just a little more interpretive distinction from music director Marin Alsop.

But Thursday night at Strathmore, it was all systems go. Even the two chestnuts on the program -- Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto and Dvorak's Ninth Symphony (the latter performed and recorded for Naxos only a few seasons ago) -- exuded freshness and interest.

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The concert would have been worthwhile if only for the BSO's first performance of

the "Doctor Atomic" Symphony by John Adams. The score, drawn from the composer's 2005 opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, conveys a good deal of the stage work's dramatic weight. But the symphony easily stands on its own; it's not essential to know what the clanging, pounding passages depict in the opera to grasp the sense of foreboding, of closely watched clocks.

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Laid out in three linked sections, the work speaks powerfully through its rhythmic tautness and dark lyricism. Waves of massed brass and percussion, which remind me of the most explosive sections in John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1, are employed by Adams to compelling effect, yet manage to avoid melodramatic excess. Although the composer's minimalist roots are in evidence, the music falls more into what I'd call a neo-late-romanticism (Adams would object, I'm sure); this is not that far removed from the sound world of Mahler and Strauss.

Alsop led a fiery, involving account of the piece. The BSO responded with admirable technical precision, sonic richness and deeply connected phrasing. Acting principal trombone Mark Davidson, following the composer's instruction to stand for solos (the instrument is used to represent a character in the opera), played superbly; he gave each line a galvanizing impact. Principal trumpet Andrew Balio and principal horn Phil Munds were likewise in peak form for their telling solos.

After the unsettling Adams work, Mendelssohn's glowing concerto provided ideal balm. The soloist was a BSO favorite, Stefan Jackiw, who made his debut with the orchestra eight years ago at the age of 17. He struck me then as a violinist with a future, and I'm still impressed with the purity and sweetness of his tone -- he knows how to make a violin "sing" naturally, eloquently -- and his unaffected way of sculpting a phrase.

I think a little more dynamic shading in the slow movement could have been applied, but that's a minor point, really. The radiant quality of Jackiw's playing provided consistent pleasure throughout the work, and his exquisite performance enjoyed sensitive support from Alsop and the orchestra.

Dvorak's Ninth received a high-octane performance, with an extra dose of acceleration where it counted and considerable tenderness in the beloved Largo. Smoother entrances from the brass would not have gone unappreciated, but the BSO otherwise sounded in crack condition. A luminous English horn solo from Jane Marvine and sweetly molded tones from a guest flutist Cathy Peterson were among the notable solo efforts.

The program repeats Saturday and Sunday at Meyerhoff Hall.

Jackiw, who received a huge ovation Thursday, did not give an encore. But I like very much the one he gave on another occasion in another part of the world:

PHOTO (by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco) COURTESY OF BSO

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