The first few weeks of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's centennial season have included some impressive performances — fiery Rachmaninoff with pianist Lang Lang and former resident conductor Christopher Seaman; a vivid hike up and down Strauss' massive "Alpine Symphony" with music director Marin Alsop. And, this weekend, a remarkable burst of eloquent music-making in a program led by Juanjo Mena, one of the BSO's favorite guest conductors.
If an orchestra is going to drag out such chestnuts as Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1, it sure helps to have a refreshing viewpoint from the podium. Mena is nothing if not refreshing.
The Spanish conductor was in superb form Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, starting with the exceptionally refined account of the Prokofiev score. His tempos in the first three movements were wonderfully relaxed and elastic, yet never lacked for momentum; he had the finale flying along, sparkling gently as it went.
All the while, Mena drew out the subtle instrumental colors in the score, not to mention the composer's wit (you couldn't help but smile during the Gavotte movement). A little thinness in the violins aside, the BSO sounded terrific, sensitive to each melodic curve and variation of dynamics.
The spirit of Haydn haunts that Prokofiev work (earning it the title "Classical"). The spirit of every violin concerto written before 1904 haunts Glazunov's Violin Concerto, making it a rather faceless work. But it has its lyrical charms, which were persuasively released on this occasion, and brilliant orchestration, which likewise had an appealing impact.
BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney has done notable work as soloist before; here, he outdid himself. The violinist's warmth of tone (endangered only when pushing hard in a few spots), poetic intensity of expression and pristine articulation served the score well. Carney enjoyed supple partnering from Mena, elegant support from the ensemble.
Beethoven's Sixth, with its incomparable depiction of an eventful day in the countryside, benefited, above all, from Mena's unhurried pacing. These days, when many conductors prefer the historically informed (read: fast) approach, it's a luxury to hear Beethoven approached with this kind of spaciousness.
Mena's incisive phrase-sculpting and attention to the smallest of details yielded one of the most consistently absorbing accounts of this symphony I've heard in a concert hall in years. The BSO responded with playing of abundant finesse and color throughout; the woodwinds soloists were in especially expressive form.