For its first program of its second century, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra picked three golden oldies from classical music's perennial hit parade and freshened them up very nicely.
Making things doubly box office-friendly was the presence of top-notch violinist Joshua Bell as soloist for one of the items, the ever-present Tchaikovsky concerto.
Bell delivered the goods Sunday afternoon before a packed house at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, finding effective nuances in many a phrase, especially by the time he reached the first movement cadenza. There, the violinist produced a delectable variety of dynamics and tone, all the while making everything sound spontaneous.
The technical polish continued through the concerto. As was the case last week at the BSO's centennial concert in a suite from Bernstein's "West Side Story," Bell's articulation of the softest, highest notes gave particular pleasure.
Music director Marin Alsop offered her usual attentive partnering on the podium and, save for a few off-center horn notes, the orchestra did sterling work.
Rossini's "William Tell" Overture, which surely one day will outlive its connection to the vintage radio and TV series "The Lone Ranger," opened the program. Alsop treated the score like the rich tone poem it is, from the exquisite music for five cellos at the start to the evocation of a thunderstorm and plaintive folk song.
When it came to the famous galloping finale, the conductor ensured that details in the orchestration could be savored during the rush, and that the ensemble did not settle into a single fortissimo mode the whole time.
The BSO turned in a winning performance, full of electricity and color. Principal cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski and his colleagues played with admirable warmth and tenderness. Jane Marvine (English horn) and Emily Skala (flute) were in typically elegant form.
Alsop has demonstrated quite an affinity for the orchestral works by Richard Strauss during her tenure with the BSO. Four years ago, she led a strong account of "Also sprach Zarathustra," a piece she returned to (a little too soon, I'd say) for this program.
Sunday's performance of the piece was just as impressive as in 2012 — even a little more so, especially in the way Alsop sculpted the reverential string passages early on, and the lightness she coaxed from the ensemble later in the delectable waltzing portion. She also deftly underlined the tension in the extraordinary, questioning coda.
There may have been an untidy brass note along the way, but the BSO's expressive force proved considerable. The sonic depth of the strings offered continual rewards, as did concertmaster Jonathan Carney's sparkling solo.
As I've said often, scores, like this one by Strauss, that call for pipe organ cannot help but be at a sonic disadvantage in the Meyerhoff, where an electronic substitute has to be brought in for the occasion. The hall really deserves its own organ, one with pipes capable of shaking the place up. The audience deserves it, too.