Katherine Needleman, BSO principal oboist
Katherine Needleman, BSO principal oboist (Baltimore Symphony)

For a dozen years, Katherine Needleman has delivered superb music-making as principal oboist of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. This week, she topped her own remarkably high standards with a supple, sensual, soaring account of the 2004 Oboe Concerto by eminent, Baltimore-born composer Christopher Rouse.

The often radiantly orchestrated score, which holds the equivalent of three movements inside one, exploits the oboe's coloristic possibilities to keen effect. But Rouse goes for much more than a bravura showpiece here.


Taking full advantage of the instrument's plangent qualities, the composer sends the oboe on remarkable flights of lyrical breadth (and breath). For all of the dancing moments and skittish flurries, the concerto, framed by slow, muted passages, is most striking for its lyrical heart.

Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Needleman zeroed in on that intimate center, pouring out a liquid tone and sculpting phrases with great sensitivity. Her sustained, songful playing during the middle of the concerto, against the delicate fabric of long-held string chords, was magical.

All the while, the soloist enjoyed refined support from the orchestra, led by the ever-attentive Marin Alsop.

The remainder of the program, which repeats tonight at Meyerhoff, was devoted to two of the Three B's.

Brahms' "Academic Festival Overture" started things off in snappy fashion. At the close came a likewise propulsive performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica").

Alsop brought out subtle nuances amid of the first movement's bold sweep (some of that boldness needed even more punch). And she paced the funeral march with care, building the grand crescendo impressively; the coda, though, lacked weight.

The conductor had the remaining movements bounding along impressively, ensuring particularly telling dynamic contrasts in the finale.

The strings, often minimizing vibrato, came through in vivid form. The horns had a great night, and the woodwinds did consistently sure, colorful work.

The orchestra has been experimenting with risers this month, after a long period without them, and with the location of sections.

The stereo effect of separating first and second violins this week paid off handsomely in the last movement of the "Eroica". But I was surprised that having the basses in a row at the back of the stage didn't give them much of a boost. I have heard such a placement intensify the bass sound for orchestras in other halls.

For audiences, the risers mean improved sight lines, but, so far, I've sensed a little loss in terms of tonal cohesiveness. Everything's a trade-off. It will be interesting to see and hear the results in future concerts.