BSO welcomes new year with joyous Beethoven

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has charged into the new year delivering a message of cheer and brotherhood. Yes, that means Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the one with the choral "Ode to Joy" at the end. Never mind that the BSO performed it only six months ago. Can't have too much joy, right?

Judging by the amount of clapping in between movements Friday night at Meyerhoff Hall — seasoned classical purists frown on that sort of thing — there were quite a few newcomers in the audience, and that's pretty joyous, too.

The applause was understandable. With guest conductor Nicholas McGegan at the helm, a high level of energy was guaranteed. There's always a little air of the imp about him, from the moment he darts to the podium, where he's prone to wiggle, bounce and even stomp to the music. The enthusiasm is infectious.

With his strong background in historically informed performance practice — he is most associated with music of the baroque era — McGegan can be counted on to choose sprightly tempos and clear textures. He applied both to the Ninth, generating taut, propulsive results.

The first movement could have used more weight and portent, the second more dynamic contrast, but the electric current in each proved engaging. The conductor sculpted the Adagio with a good deal of elegance and had the famed finale flowing potently.

For the most part, the BSO sounded polished and keenly engaged. The last movement benefited greatly from the contributions of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, which showed off not just tonal smoothness, but also a strong expressive edge in articulating Friedrich Schiller's bear-hug of an ode.

The uniformly impressive solo quartet — soprano Katie Van Kooten, mezzo Mary Phillips, tenor Thomas Cooley, bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams — sounded rich in tone and ever-alert to nuances of text.

McGegan balanced the well-worn Ninth Symphony with much less common fare on the first half of the program.

Beethoven's "Opferlied," with a verse by Friedrich von Matthisson about a youth's sacrifice to Zeus in pursuit of the good and the beautiful, is a brief, unassuming work that can achieve considerable eloquence. It did so here. McGegan ensured a gentle touch from the BSO and Choral Arts Society; Phillips delivered the solo lines in sumptuous voice.

Peter Pindar's practically Twitter-length poem "The Storm" conveyed enough to inspire Haydn, whose eagerly descriptive music conjures up dark skies, roaring winds and swelling thunder. McGegan drew a stirring performance from the chorus and, an uneven chord or two aside, the orchestra.

The BSO did colorful work in Beethoven's "King Stephen" Overture, an apt choice to start this program. The ebullient spirit of the overture, even a melodic snippet from it, can be heard as pre-echoes of the "Ode to Joy."