On Friday night, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's gave, note for note, one of the most thoroughly absorbing and emotionally powerful performances of an all-Russian program since the glory days of all-Russian programs with former music director Yuri Temirkanov.
Although non-Russians can certainly shine in music from that country, as we have witnessed locally in some hot BSO concerts led by Marin Alsop, Juanjo Mena and others, Russians do tend to touch some deeper nerve.
Making his BSO debut, Moscow-born conductor Dima Slobodeniouk had the orchestra sounding all fired up at Meyerhoff Hall in some pretty tough repertoire that included the long, draining Symphony No. 11, "The Year 1905," by Shostakovich.
Slobodeniouk had the advantage of working with an orchestra that not only retains memories of Temirkanov's approach to Shostakovich, but, during Alsop's tenure at the helm, has also gained steadily in technical discipline and tonal cohesiveness. The result was a tense, incendiary account of a symphony that speaks as powerfully to the past as to the present.
In commemorating the dreadful attack on unarmed workers who sought to deliver a petition to the czar in St. Petersburg in January 1905, Shostakovich managed, intentionally or not, to depict the continuing evil of authoritarian rule, the ever-present threat against those seeking a voice, a touch of freedom and fairness.
The message comes through hauntingly in the finale, when Shostakovich suddenly brings back the hushed, ominous sounds of the symphony's start, the sounds depicting the palace square before the marchers arrived.
In that reprise, the composer reminds us that the process of struggling against tyranny keeps repeating. It was a message relevant to the Soviets when the Eleventh Symphony was premiered in 1957, and just as relevant in today's Russian, when criticism is so quickly, often brutally, suppressed.
Slobodeniouk's calm, clean direction helped hold the sprawling symphony tightly together, ensuring that even the softest, slowest-moving passages had a compelling edge. (You could tell by the gradually diminishing coughs in the hall that the audience was getting as involved as the orchestra was.)
Among the highlights of the performance: The expertly judged crescendos as the second movement evoked the build-up to violence in the square; the barely audible sounds from the lower strings in the third movement's eulogy; the jolts from the brass and percussion sections when the symphony was at its most explosive.
Like the late Mstislav Rostropovich used to do when conducting this symphony, Slobodeniouk allowed the final bell clang in the piece to resonate long after the rest of the orchestra fell silent, a terrific effect. (Some in the audience weren't expecting that, so a smattering of premature applause broke out; the conductor might want to try keeping his arm raised next time as a signal to hold on.)
Rachmaninoff dominated the first half of the program, and not over-exposed Rachmaninoff. His Piano Concerto No. 4, like No. 1, remains on the sidelines, lacking the kind of ear-worms that makes the second and third concertos so popular. But this is an endlessly fascinating score, rich in ideas and sonic brilliance.
Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski, in a welcome return to the BSO, tackled the work with tireless bravura and keen musicality. His scintillant articulation in the third movement was but one memorable effect in a performance full of color and expressive flair. Trpceski enjoyed supple collaboration with conductor and orchestra
The evening opened with an early orchestral piece, "The Rock," which reveals Rachmaninoff's debt to Tchaikovsky (especially the "Manfred" Symphony). Slobodeniouk had the atmospheric music unfolding with a good deal of character. A little raw intonation aside, the BSO did solid work.