Classical music institutions routinely get charged with being stuck in ruts, overly focused on repeating old repertoire over and over, skittish about stretching boundaries. The latest Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program, full of rapping and pounding, practically shouts, “What ruts? What boundaries?”
Sure, the second half of the concert — devoted to Debussy’s “La Mer” and Ravel’s “La Valse” — is terribly conventional.
But on Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, BSO music director Marin Alsop shaped accounts of these familiar, prismatic French masterworks that never felt routine. Phrases were full of character, dynamics (for the most part) subtly shaded. And the orchestra sounded terrific in both pieces — strings luscious, woodwinds sparkling, the brass supple and mighty.
(The Debussy and Ravel pieces will be discussed and performed at an Off the Cuff concert Saturday at the Meyerhoff, with a visual presentation of provided by the Baltimore Museum of Art.)
The horizon expansion comes in the program’s first half. If Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals” is hardly novel, the BSO’s version mixes in something new.
Conceived in the late 1880s as a private party piece, Saint-Saens crafted short, droll musical portraits of assorted wildlife (and, at one point, possibly music critics — still a form of animal, some would argue). After the composer went to that great big carnival in the sky in 1921, the music was published and became a widespread hit.
A few decades after that, American poet Ogden Nash, a name now probably best known for its use in crossword puzzles, concocted cute verses that can be recited before each of the score’s movements.
In place of Nash’s poems, the BSO invited Baltimore rapper Wordsmith to fashion a new text. His jaunty rhymes struck me as mostly pedestrian, but the artist’s delivery, full of theatrical flourishes, proved fun.
The central keyboard parts in “Carnival” were handled with consummate skill and expressive color by Lura Johnson and Michael Sheppard. (Seeing the pair of grands onstage reminded me how rare it is that we get to hear concertos for two pianos and orchestra, an absurdly neglected genre, but that’s another story.)
Alsop drew lively playing from the ensemble. Principal cellist Darius Skoraczewski played the famous solo in “The Swan” movement gorgeously.
Since Alsop arrived at the BSO, pathbreaking composer and Baltimore native Philip Glass finally started to get the kind of attention he deserves in his hometown. The conductor brought his “Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists” into the orchestra’s repertoire on this occasion, a most welcome addition.
I still recall the jolt of the concerto’s first Baltimore performance in 2001 by the Peabody Symphony Orchestra. On Thursday, the jolt proved even more intense.
The familiar Glass trademarks are here, but his minimalist-rooted harmonic language in this case supports a varied, often lushly lyrical melodic strain. And he creates remarkable textures from both the timpani and the orchestra.
The daunting solo assignments were brilliantly handled by BSO principal timpanist James Wyman and his National Symphony Orchestra counterpart, Jauvon Gilliam. Both drew abundant power and a wealth of tonal nuances from their batteries of timpani.
Alsop kept the orchestra in a taut groove throughout, ensuring a galvanizing impact in the whirlwind finale, where Glass tosses in almost giddy, Gershwin-esque woodwind flourishes amid the orchestral pulsations and the driving impact of the timpani. The concerto is instantly, constantly engaging; so was this performance.