Heading into the home stretch — the season’s final subscription program is next week — the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is in great form.
On Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, music director Marin Alsop led the ensemble through works by Schumann, Stravinsky and, with pianist Kirill Gerstein, Gershwin. This is one of the programs that the BSO will offer during its debut at the Edinburgh Festival in August (Jean-Yves Thibaudet will be the Gershwin soloist then).
My only quibble (well, almost only) has to do with the order of things. I think it would be more satisfying if everything were reversed, allowing the majestic finale of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” Suite to end the concert.
Still, Alsop molded that popular Stravinsky score with considerable sensitivity to pulse and dynamic nuance on Friday. The brass encountered a bit of raggedness, the woodwinds a touch of sour intonation, but things got tighter quickly. There was extra color and warmth from the various solo players within the ensemble, extra tonal glow from the string sections.
It doesn’t seem so long ago that some classical music types sniffed at Gershwin’s Concerto in F, considering the jazz-propelled work not quite serious or weighty enough to be considered alongside all those proper concertos for piano and orchestra.
We’re far more enlightened now, of course, thanks partly to the fact that so many first-rate classical keyboard artists have wholeheartedly embraced this music. Some of them go put their own firm stamp on the concerto, too. Gerstein is a case in point.
The Russian-born American pianist, a superb interpreter of the classical canon, has an innate feeling for the jazz idiom (his studies included both genres). He demonstrated that knack on Friday by adding embellishments throughout the score. These improvisatory additions never felt intrusive or showy, but were well within the Gershwin idiom.
Gerstein’s polished, spontaneous sounding interpretation was matched by poised and vibrant playing from the orchestra. Andrew Balio’s silken-toned trumpet work impressed in the second movement.
Alsop, who kept everything smoothly in sync during the concerto, led a finely proportioned account of Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 on the program’s second half.
The conductor had the sublime Adagio flowing elegantly (though it didn’t feel as spacious as I remember when she last conducted it), and drew out the symphony’s other lyrical passages with care. But it was Alsop’s flair for generating rhythmic urgency that really made the performance.
The scherzo, in particular, had terrific propulsion. It got an unexpected visual kick, too — Alsop called on the violins to stand during the coda, which they played with stellar articulation at a breathless tempo. I’m thinking this little bit of theater may have been inspired by the way some period instrument orchestras stand while they perform. Whatever the impetus, I thought it was rather fun.
There was more standing, this time by most of the orchestra (cellists pretty much have to sit), for another surprise — an encore, Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1.
Orchestras gearing up for a tour invariably prepare encores that are tried out first on their local audiences. You really shouldn’t need a travel excuse to add a bonus to a concert once in a while. Friday night’s crowd ate this one up.