Things tend to go very well whenever Peter Oundjian makes a guest conducting engagement with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. His return this weekend for a program of works filled with color and melodic adventure is especially rewarding.
Oundjian strikes me as one of the best instrumentalists-turned-conductors on the scene these days. When repetitive stress injuries forced him to step down as first-violinist of the stellar Tokyo String Quartet after 14 years in 1995, he moved to the podium and built a second career. The 59-year-old Oundjian is currently music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
On Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Oundjian and the BSO seemed to be having great fun from the first note of Haydn's Symphony No. 96 right on through to the last blaze of sonic glory in Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."
The Haydn work benefited from the conductor's breezy, but never rushed, tempos and, especially, his way of molding a phrase to bring out charm and wit with an easy elegance. And when the music turned stormy and emphatic, Oundjian made sure it delivered a Beethoven-worthy punch.
If articulation in a few spots could have been cleaner (the violins, in particular, didn't have quite their usual cohesive tone), the orchestra's response was rich in character. Melissa Hooper, the BSO's assistant principal oboe, delivered her solo in the Minuet in a wonderfully songful manner.
Principal oboist Katherine Needleman's abundant talents were put to exquisite use in Vaughan Williams' Concerto for Oboe and Strings. In this work from 1944, the oboe becomes like a gentle beacon, leading the way toward a world far sweeter than the one the composer and his compatriots had been experiencing in wartime Britain.
Needleman performed with style and substance; her phrasing in the closing minutes of the first movement could not have been much more poetic.
The oboist maintained tonal silkiness even during the most bravura passages, which she negotiated with seemingly effortless finesse. A class act all the way, one matched sensitively by Oundjian and the ensemble.
(The one-of-a-kind oboe stolen from Needleman last year in Montreal has not been recovered. She is trying out a new instrument in this weekend's performances.)
The conductor managed to make Mussorgsky's well-worn "Pictures" (orchestrated by Ravel) sound quite fresh and invigorating. He lingered effectively over the moodiest movements, seeking out nuances of dynamics and phrasing that helped bring subtle details into focus.
And he unleashed terrific power for the in-your-face passages, most impressively in the almost Shostakovich-like assault midway through "Bydlo" and in the concluding "Great Gate of Kiev," when Oundjian's spacious pacing and tonal contrasts kept the music from peaking too soon.
It was a shining night for the brass section (solo and ensemble), but really the whole orchestra rose admirably to the challenge, helping to make these "Pictures" seem positively 3-D.