Over the weekend, memorable music from Concert Artists, Fleishers

Weekends are wonderfully musical around here, offering, more often than not, too many events for any one listener to take in, without benefit of helicopter or cloning. The choices I made last weekend paid handsome dividends.

On Saturday night at the Gordon Center, which boasts some of the most satisfying acoustics around, the Concert Artists of Baltimore, led by Edward Polochick, delivered a typically diverse program in typically dynamic fashion.

When it comes to our local professional orchestras, the Baltimore Symphony rightly holds pride of place; it's one of America's finest, after all. To my ears, the next ensemble in any Baltimore-area ranking would have to be Concert Artists, which, more often than not, plays way beyond its pay scale and produces a sound much richer than its size would suggest. Such was the case Saturday.

A lot of the credit for this clearly goes to Polochick, one of those rare, naturally inspiring conductors who can draw the best from musicians. That best may not always be measured in technical terms, but invariably in expressive ones.

The program-closing dances from Ginastera's "Estancia" were performed with contagious verve and impressive discipline. The subtleties of Ravel's "Mother Goose Suite" at the start of the evening emerged quite sensually.

And note how terrifically the string players -- backing one of their own members, principal clarinet David Drosinos -- intensely articulated the grunge-inflected clarinet concerto by Scott McAllister called "X."

In this work from the 1990s,  Florida-born McAllister incorporates references to Nirvana and Alice in Chains, as well as Mozart and, most compellingly, the folk song "In the Pines" that Kurt Cobain once covered.

It's a very cool score that manages to avoid sounding forced or gimmicky. It's also awfully difficult for the soloist, but you would not have guessed that from the spontaneous, vibrant performance by Drosinos, who summoned all manner of finely shaded sounds along the way.

Concert Artists has a professional chorus, too, and that group was showcased in Vaughan Williams' a cappella Mass in G minor, a piece imbued with the grassy scents of the English countryside. The choristers maintained a generally smooth blend and polished articulation. As he did with each item on the program, Polochick shaped the Mass with an ear for nuances of character, color and contour.

Speaking of character, color and contour, those attributes were also in abundance Sunday afternoon when Music in the Great Hall presented veteran keyboard artist Leon Fleisher and his wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, a fine pianist in her own right.

The concert attracted the biggest crowd I can recall seeing at the venue (Unitarian Universalist Church in Towson). It was the loudest, too -- other organizations could use such energetic cheerers.

The first half of the program was devoted to two-hand and left hand-only works played by Fleisher, who lost the use of his right hand to focal dystonia in the 1960s and only gradually began to regain some usage decades later.

On Sunday, the pianist, who turns 85 this summer, sounded a little tentative techncially early in the recital, but quickly warmed up. The extraordinary musicality that has long defined him, the ability to get inside a phrase and extract a composer's most revealing thoughts, was ever-present -- they just don't make 'em like this anymore.

His account of Leon Kirchner's alternately spiky and lyrical "L.H.," a left-hand piece written for him, found Fleisher in particularly compelling form.

The two Fleishers shared the stage in a richly poetic performance of Schubert's F minor Fantasie and brought an abundance of coloristic shading and rhythmic vitality to Ravel's "La Valse." A gently shaped Slavonic Dance by Dvorak provided a apt encore to a most rewarding afternoon.

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