Spirited music-making in Concert Artists season finale

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A combination of Schubert and Vaughan Williams proved ideal for Concert Artists of Baltimore's season finale.

To close its 29th season, Concert Artists of Baltimore put together another of its unusually appealing programs and delivered it in typically spirited fashion.

Having a professional chorus as well as orchestra always gives the organization a certain advantage when it comes to diverse repertoire, of course. Still, Saturday night's combination of Schubert and Ralph Vaughan Williams, performed in the acoustically marvelous Gordon Center in Owings Mills for a small turnout, hit an extra sweet spot.

The concert's first half focused on the great British composer, whose music seems to be absurdly under-appreciated in this country.

His "Serenade to Music" from 1938, an exquisitely lyrical setting of a text from Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," was crafted with admirable nuance by conductor Edward Polochick. The hushed coda, in particular, left a long afterglow in the hall.

The chorus, especially the gleaming sopranos, maintained tonal smoothness and shaped phrases in eloquent fashion. The orchestra likewise offered sensitive work; concertmaster Jose Miguel Cueto's solos started off-center, but smoothed out nicely. 

(In the video clip above, Vaughan Williams can be seen sitting on the steps as a recording is being made of the "Serenade" in its original version for 16 voices and orchestra. conducted by Sir Henry Wood -- the piece was written in honor of that conductor.)

"Flos Campi," Vaughan Williams' intriguing reflection on passages from the Song of Solomon, is scored for the unlikely combination of solo viola, wordless chorus and orchestra.

Rita Porfiris proved an ideal soloist, as much for her richness of tone and impeccable articulation as for the warmth and subtlety of her phrasing. Polochick again provided nuanced guidance, drawing a refined response from the singers and the orchestra. The haunting slow-fade close, as in "Serenade to Music," was handled with impressive skill.

Schubert's Symphony No. 9 can be a bit of slog, given its length and repetitive tendencies. But Polochick wasn't about to let anything grow tiresome. The conductor charged boldly into the opening movement, all the while attentive to every opportunity for dynamic contrast and songful phrase-molding.

He achieved terrific tension in the Andante (marred only by a couple of chatty elderly ladies who, happily for the rest of us, bailed before the movement ended). The remainder of the symphony likewise benefited from Polochick's technically detailed, vividly expressive approach.

From the cohesiveness of the playing -- the strings, especially -- you might have mistaken this group for a 52-week orchestra, rather than an ensemble that comes together only periodically. Credit the caliber of local freelance musicians, and the fact that they clearly enjoy making music with Polochick. All good signs for a strong 30th season ahead.

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