This weekend's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program won't win points on originality. Not only does it follow the long-stale format of overture-concerto-symphony, but it also plugs tried-and-true examples into each of those three slots.
Still, there's an element of freshness: The concert's two guest artists are making their BSO debuts.
On Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, German conductor Johannes Debus exuded calm, unfussy control and an ear for highlighting inner details of orchestration, especially involving woodwinds and brass.
That was evident at the start in the Overture to Rossini's "The Barber of Seville." Debus continually drew out little details in the scoring, while giving the music's theatricality its due. The conductor's opera house experience — he's music director of the Canadian Opera Company and made his Metropolitan Opera debut last month — was readily apparent. The BSO responded cleanly, colorfully.
Debus also led a perfectly respectable account of the meaty Symphony No. 1 by Brahms, emphasizing flow and tautness over lyrical expansion.
If the performance lacked the element of surprise, it certainly held rewards, helped in high-drama passages by the orchestra's muscular tone and in subtler moments by velvety solos from concertmaster Jonathan Carney, principal oboe Katherine Needleman and principal horn Philip Munds.
Beethoven's five piano concertos have been threaded through this season without any particular context or connective point. It would have been more interesting to have them presented in a marathon, perhaps, or over the course a couple weeks, rather than doled out piecemeal.
This program offers Concerto No. 2. Preceding the work designated No. 1, but published later, it's full of Beethoven's forward-looking spirit, a spirit strongly evoked by French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in his first BSO appearance.
This wasn't so much a case of dazzling technique as effortless style, nowhere more elegantly displayed than in the way he sculpted the closing measures of the cadenza in the Adagio.
The pianist was no less impressive in the impish finale, offering consistently colorful phrasing. Debus had the orchestra delivering abundant sparkle as well in this engaging performance..