Although the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra brings back Beethoven's Ninth a little too frequently — I wonder if they bother packing the scores away between outings — its return this weekend seems serendipitous.
Coming so soon after a historically divisive election and just before Thanksgiving, the drama and uplift of the Symphony No. 9, capped by the choral finale's famous, rousing call to brotherhood, hits a most welcome note.
The symphony will be the only item on the bill Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, when the community is invited to chime in with the chorus. Music director Marin Alsop will rehearse the audience before conducting a complete performance of the Ninth.
On Friday night in that hall, when the program also offered a cool, Beethoven-influenced work by John Adams, Alsop shaped Beethoven's last symphony with a good deal of sensitivity to dynamic contrasts, melodic arcs and structural unity. The familiar music sounded quite fresh and involving; same for the orchestra.
More tension and suspense can be generated in the first movement, but Alsop compensated by bringing out subtle inner details. She effectively underlined many assertive moments in that movement, as well as the relentless energy of the second, aided greatly every whack of the way by principal timpanist James Wyman.
Alsop gave the Adagio room to spread its poetic wings and shaped the long phrases with an elegant touch, drawing refined playing from the strings and woodwinds.
She held the sprawling last movement together skillfully. The BSO responded in hearty fashion; the whispery articulation of the "Ode to Joy" theme in the cellos and basses was as confident and telling as the biggest, brassiest outbursts later.
The Baltimore Choral Arts Society sang with vivid expression, and except for some inconsistencies among the men's voices, a fine tonal blend.
The standout among the vocal soloists was Reginald Smith Jr. The warmth and amplitude of his baritone was matched by the communicative impact of his singing, starting with the electric, hall-filling charge he gave to Friedrich Schiller's opening lines about raising voices in joyful song.
Soprano Katie Van Kooten came up short on high notes, but otherwise satisfied. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong and tenor Joshua Guerrero completed the solo quartet strongly.
Adams' "Absolute Jest" was perfect choice for the first half of the concert. This crackling piece for string quartet and orchestra is an extended riff on melodic and rhythmic components from several of Beethoven's scherzos, including the one from the Ninth Symphony.
Even during an eerie passage midway through, when the instrumental textures thin out and the pace slows, the music still exerts a churning energy.
Alsop led a bravura performance of the score, which featured the top-drawer St. Lawrence String Quartet interacting deftly with the BSO.
To start the evening, another of the BSO's centennial commissions was premiered — "Double Play," a brief, fun, pop-jazz flavored sonic ride by T.J. Cole.
The BSO performs Beethoven's Symphony at 8 p.m. Saturday at Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org.