To start up the new year, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra turned to something old — music by Mozart. A program devoted solely to that composer can be counted on to draw a crowd, as it did Friday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
The reward for venturing out on a bitter night (what’s a little wind chill if there’s Mozart inside?) was the opportunity to hear spirited and elegant music-making guided by Bernard Labadie, the Quebecois conductor particularly admired for his work in 17th- and 18th-century repertoire. This program marks his BSO debut.
Three years ago, Labadie overcame lymphoma; at one stage, the treatment required him to spend a month in a medically induced coma. When he felt strong enough to resume his career, he found it easier to conduct while seated. At 54, he still sits on the podium, now by choice, feeling more connected to the music and the musicians that way.
The connectivity didn’t seem fully charged during the opener, the ubiquitous “Eine kleine Nachtmusik.”
Labadie paced the score pleasantly, and the BSO strings bubbled along nicely enough (a lack of tonal unanimity among the violins took a toll). But the notes never quite left the page; the performance sounded a wee bit dutiful.
After that, however, everything clicked.
The Concerto for Flute and Harp reflects Mozart at his most charming and, in the Andantino movement, his most disarming.
As Labadie sculpted the orchestra side of things with keen sensitivity to matters of dynamics and balance, BSO principal flutist Emily Skala and acting principal harpist Sarah Fuller matched pristine technique with poetic phrasing.
In that exquisite Andantino, haunted by a recurring, yearning theme, the seamless blend of the soloists reached an expressive peak, matched by a lovely glow from the ensemble.
Mozart didn’t attach the nickname “Jupiter” to his Symphony No. 41, but the tag, apparently applied by an eminent impresario after the composer’s death, easily fits a work so mighty in form and content.
Labadie offered an involving account of the score. He effectively underlined all the majestic qualities, but also applied lyricism and dynamic shading in equal measure.
There were deft touches at nearly every turn, little bends in phrase or tempo that made the music seem quite new. The way the conductor caught both the suavity and the swagger of the Minuet was but one example.
The BSO did impressive work, producing a bold, juicy sound for the declamatory moments and abundant warmth whenever required. There were especially valuable efforts from the lithe, easy-on-the-vibrato strings and the prismatic woodwinds.
Everyone kicked into high gear for the exhilarating, intricately constructed finale, maintaining clarity of articulation and tonal richness all the way through this ever-astounding example of Mozart’s unearthly genius.