The latest Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program, the penultimate one for the season, provides a stirring lesson in the art of musical structure.
Guest conductor Christoph Konig uses two weighty symphonies, Beethoven's Fifth and Sibelius' Seventh, as bookends, with Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1 in between. Each piece evolves from small elements — the essence of the Beethoven and Shostakovich scores is contained in just four notes — and builds layer upon layer of intellectual and emotional depth.
The pairing of the two symphonies is particularly telling. As Konig told the audience Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, both works end on the same chord. But in the case of Sibelius, it's "the least assertive and perhaps most depressive C major," the conductor said, while Beethoven's C major is "the most affirmative."
Heard on the same program, the two symphonies seemed to speak to each other, echoing or pre-echoing similar struggles.
At the start of the evening, you could sense Sibelius constantly trying to capture and retain the light as threats swirled around, finally achieving some sort of victory — C major is the epitome of consonance, after all — but at a cost. That final chord barely registers before it's gone.
Beethoven had the last word, bringing the concert to a close in his famous fist-waving mode, determined to prove that any force of darkness can be defeated with enough grit.
Even if you don't buy the idea that these symphonies have big messages flashing behind the notes, it would have been hard on Friday not to be swept into the drama that Konig successfully stirred up onstage.
The German conductor had the BSO delving into Sibelius Seventh with considerable communicative weight, the strings and brass producing a wonderfully dark, rich tone. The music's unbroken arc (the symphony dispenses with traditional demarcated movements) was tautly sustained.
Konig took a conventional, propulsive approach to the Beethoven symphony, adding a few subtle bends in the rhythm along the way. His kinetic drive at the end of the fourth movement proved quite effective. The orchestra jumped into the piece a little unevenly, but proceeded to deliver a robust and involving performance.
The Stalin-haunted Shostakovich concerto, a mix of brittle, poetic and defiant thoughts, had an ideal protagonist in the Alban Gerhardt, in a long overdue return visit to the BSO (his last gig here was 13 years ago). The German cellist matched a pristine technique to expressive urgency, giving the music fresh power.
Gerhardt's handling of the profound, unaccompanied third movement was a high point; his pianissimo playing proved especially impressive (despite an outbreak of seismic coughing in the hall).
The attentive Konig provided firm support for the cellist and drew vivid, polished work from the BSO.
Gerhardt delivered the Prelude from Bach's Cello Suite No. 6 as an encore, phrased with spontaneity and elegance, and later took a seat in the last row of the BSO cello section to join in the Beethoven symphony. A guest artist-plus.
The evening included salutes to much-valued BSO members who are retiring: Principal librarian Mary Plaine (37 years); principal clarinetist Steven Barta (39 years); cellist Paula Skolnik-Childress (45 years); and assistant principal clarinetist Christopher Wolfe, who joked to the audience, "I'm tired" — after an impressive 52 years, the longest tenure in the history of the Baltimore Symphony.