Given the soggy spring we've had, not to mention this weekend's rainfall, the last thing you might want to hear is something called "Water Concerto." And given the familiarity of Gustav Holst's orchestral showpiece "The Planets," you might be even less inclined to catch a concert that includes both. Well, think again. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's latest program is a winner.
Something tells me it wouldn't actually matter what music is on that program, because of who's leading it. In his BSO debut, Finnish conductor John Storgards demonstrates not just the technical skill you'd expect from someone who holds posts with the BBC Philharmonic and National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa. He's got the chemistry that can motivate an already impressive bunch of musicians to kick it up an extra notch.
Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the first crescendo in "Mars," the opening movement of the Holst score, might have registered on the Richter scale. I wasn't expecting that, certainly not a week after the BSO stormed the sonic heights of John Adams' "Harmonielehre" so mightily in that same space. There was an extra charge to the playing all night.
Not that everything involved volume. Tan Dun's "Water Concerto," an arresting, highly theatrical score from 1998 for water percussion and orchestra, often stays at the subtlest of aural levels. The BSO programmed it in 2003 with New York Philharmonic principal percussionist Christopher Lamb as soloist; he returned for this occasion.
Lamb, who gave the world premiere of the concerto with the Philharmonic, knows every drop of the piece inside and out (he had a hand in creating some of the instruments used for it). He once again revealed a flair for the intricate nuances of a concerto imbued with Asian sensibilities, temporal and spiritual.
There's purpose and beauty to each splish-splash of a water drum or each shifting vibration from a gong being lowered into water. The orchestral fabric, too, is rich in color and detail (neighing sounds from woodwind players using reeds only add a wonderful effect).
In addition to Lamb's authoritative work, BSO percussionists Brian Prechtl and Christopher Williams made their watery contributions effectively. The ensemble, deftly guided by Storgards, responded with admirable sensitivity and, in the kinetic dance-like passages, great snap.
The program also offered the premiere of the latest in the BSO's series of centennial commissions, Libby Larsen's "Earth (Holst Trope)." Holst did not include our planet when writing his most famous work, so Larsen has crafted a musical statement about our speck of the solar system, a statement of wonder and worry; the hymn tune "For the Beauty of the Earth" makes an apt appearance. The prismatic piece, which closes tellingly on an uncertain note, received a supple performance that provided a perfect segue into "The Planets."
Storgards made Holst's work seem freshly stimulating. The noble, Edward Elgar-like theme in "Jupiter," for example, emerged with tremendous expressive weight; the mix of mirth and radiance in "Saturn" was superbly realized. The BSO is capable of finer pianissimo playing than was achieved Friday, but that proved a minor matter in light of all the intensely communicative work. It was an edge-of-your-seat performance all the way.
In the concluding "Neptune" movement, the women's voices of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society delivered their offstage, wordless phrases ably. The gradual fade-out at the close, so evocative of slipping away from our own galaxy, was achieved with particular finesse.