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Colorful Shulman, spicy Prokofiev (with Fleisher), sumptuous Rachmaninoff from BSO

Two conductors, one pianist, a neglected piece from 1952 by a Baltimore-born composer, and a couple of Russian works from the 1930s that don't come around often -- all part of an enjoyable program from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall.

Alan Shulman, who left his native Baltimore in the 1920s after initial music studies at the Peabody Institute, was a gifted cellist, composer and arranger. His music found favor in high places (classical and non-classical alike), but gradually faded from earshot.

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The BSO's revival of "A Laurentian Overture" this week ought to make audiences intrigued to hear more of the composer's output.

This score, inspired by Canada's Laurentian Mountains, was premiered by the New York Philharmonic with Guido Cantelli on the podium, a few years before that superb conductor died in a plane crash at the age of 36. (I've attached an audio recording of that performance.)

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Although the overture contains a fun flavor of French-Canadian folk songs, there's even more in the way of good old mid-century American snap. Shulman reveals considerable skill for orchestrating and developing catchy tunes, as well as weaving them together to make an eventful little tone poem. It must have delighted the dedicatee -- the inimitable actress Tallulah Bankhead.

To conduct the overture, which the BSO hasn't programmed since 1959, the orchestra invited back Joseph Young, who received the first BSO-Peabody Institute Conducting Fellowship (2007-2009). On a steady career path since then, he's currently assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony.

Young led a buoyant, finely nuanced account of the score and drew vivid playing from the ensemble (crackly notes from the trumpet section popped up occasionally, as they did during the rest of the concert).

The program continued with BSO music director Marin Alsop presiding. She provided supple, attentive partnering for the evening's guest soloist, Leon Fleisher, who, an astonishing 62 years after his BSO debut, remains a formidable keyboard artist (he's 87 now).

Although medical treatments made it possible for Fleisher to do limited two-hand playing in recent years, longtime focal dystonia remains in his right hand. For this program, he turned to Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 4 for left hand.

Fleisher negotiated the tricky music with technical aplomb and, more importantly, a rich musicality. That put fresh, subtle coloring into phrases and made the concerto's meandering moments seem less so. The pianist did especially expressive playing in the Andante, and also articulated the last, winking measures of the finale with great finesse.

To close the evening, Alsop and the orchestra turned to Rachmaninoff's sumptuous Symphony No. 3. This and other efforts from the composer's last years have long been overshadowed by his earlier hits, if not outright dismissed as inferior in some quarters.

But I'm on the side of the late, ever-incisive critic Michael Steinberg, who declared that these "unpopular" works "represent the composer at his most formidably intelligent and imaginative, that they have strength, integrity, vision and atmosphere." The Third Symphony abounds in all of those attributes.

In the early years of her BSO tenure, Alsop seemed to stay a safe emotional distance from some of the most heated of romantic compositions, keeping them on a low boil. That hasn't been the case for some time now. Her approach to Rachmaninoff's Third was full of warm phrasing, spacious tempos, vividly etched peaks.

Alsop ensured that the dark beauty of the first movement's coda and the intense lyricism in the Adagio emerged with particular power. And she held the sprawling finale together, while letting its eloquent passages blossom freely. Keen attention to dynamic contrasts also helped the most delicate, evocative features in Rachmaninoff's scoring to register beautifully.

The BSO's strings did especially impressive work, maintaining quite a lustrous tone. Solo efforts throughout the orchestra registered vibrantly in this absorbing performance of a brilliant, deeply poetic symphony.

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