Rousing Baltimore Symphony concert with conductor Hans Graf, violinist Ray Chen


If you like your romanticism with extra layers of hot fudge -- I say bring it on -- this week's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program is just the ticket.

Two super-lyrical, extra-passionate Russian works, Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto and Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2, make a sumptuous, satisfying pair. Both were served up in rousing fashion Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall.

Hans Graf, conductor laureate of the Houston Symphony, has a fine track record of inspiring guest appearances with the BSO; he added to that record on this occasion. And in his local debut, the fast-rising violinist Ray Chen gave notice of a distinctive musical personality.

As he demonstrated on a delectable Mozart recording with pianist/conductor Christoph Eschenbach for Sony, the 25-year-old Chen is capable of sustaining an exceptionally refined tone and elegant phrasing. It's very easy to hear on that disc the influence of his sterling teacher, Aaron Rosand, back in his student days at the Curtis Institute.

On Thursday, Chen showed just as persuasively that he can be edgy, volatile, even a little rough, too. His account of the Tchaikovsky concerto was a grabber from the start, partly because of the sheer tonal intensity. Where other fiddlers apply sweetness, this one kept things spicy.

Throughout, the violinist pushed his Strad to the limit, sometimes at the expense of tonal purity in the most heated passages, but always with engaging results. Other than some not-quite-centered harmonics in the first movement, Chen's technique held firm as he stirred up the familiar music. And he had seamless partnering from Graf, who drew tight, vivid playing from the orchestra.

The audience coaxed an encore from the violinist, a Paganini Caprice delivered with spring-loaded lyricism.

Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony brought the evening to a memorable close.

It is possible to give this soul-on-sleeve score an extra tug here, a push there, the way I've heard Yuri Temirkanov and Mariss Jansons do to uplifting effect. Graf was not about to let the work's emotional content spill over the top, but he didn't keep the lid on too tightly, either. There was plenty of spontaneity in his finely sculpted account. 

With an economy of gestures on the podium, the conductor unleashed remarkable power surges from the musicians when Rachmaninoff's most restless themes reached their crests and when, in the second movement, the counterpoint started flying. Graf had the finale bounding along almost giddily, resulting in one of this most potent BSO-induced highs this season.

There was great subtlety as well, notably in the Adagio, where the violins sculpted their ecstatic melodic lines with a juicy tone and Steven Barta's clarinet solo purred serenely.

Add this performance to the BSO's growing list of stellar efforts. At every turn, the playing had commendable cohesion and character, right from the delicate pianissimo at the start (in recent years, the orchestra has become more and more telling at the soft end of the dynamic scale).

The program repeats Friday at Meyerhoff, Saturday at Strathmore.

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