Well-packed with crowd-pleasers, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's final program of the season could have been just an autopilot affair, a safe way to wrap things up for subscribers until September. It turns out to be anything but routine.
On Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where the concert will be repeated Friday and Sunday, the music-making maintained a high level of technique and heart, generating fresh, extra-involving performances of two big, familiar works — Beethoven's Violin Concerto and Saint-Saens' Symphony No. 3.
Music director Marin Alsop and the BSO could not have asked for a more eloquent soloist for the noble Beethoven work than Gil Shaham. He drew a veritable feast of tone coloring from his violin, along with abundant subtleties of phrasing.
There was something at once spontaneous and deeply considered about Shaham's interpretation, which included wonderful rhythmic freedom.
One indelible touch occurred partway through the second movement, when Shaham seized on the brief mood shift in the music to create something explosive and unsettling. The violinist's customized cadenzas (part Kreisler, part Shaham) found him in even more individualistic form, generating sparks of drama and lyricism in equal measure.
Alsop and the orchestra really seemed to breathe with the soloist, ensuring a fully cohesive performance that was also notable for the sensitivity of the ensemble's playing. Shaham acknowledged the hearty ovation with a Bach encore that benefited from his deftness of touch, warmth of phrase.
Saint-Saens' Third Symphony, popularly known as the "Organ" Symphony for its majestic use of that instrument, can't deliver its full impact at the Meyerhoff until an honest-to-goodness pipe organ is installed there.
For that to happen, we'd need a wildly rich patron — hey, Amazon's Jeff Bezos is asking the public for suggestions on ways to spend his billions on philanthropy, so how about it? Meanwhile, an electronic substitute will have to do, and it did very well Thursday with the rock-solid James Harp at the keys and pedals.
The organ part is just one element, of course, in this sumptuous, imaginatively structured symphony, which Alsop conducted from memory. She lavished care on the gentle introduction to the first movement and continued to shape the score with an ear for inner details.
Alsop drew gorgeous playing from the strings in the slow movement, vivid work from winds and brass in the scherzo and finale. I would have been happy with a few more seconds of holding onto the last chord, but this was still a fulfilling end to the performance, and the BSO season.
The program opened with something new. "The Game," composed by Christopher Theofanidis, is the last of the BSO Centennial Commissions spearheaded by the Eric Daniel Helms New Music Program. Dedicated to writer David Simon, the piece is based on a theme song used on his HBO show "The Wire" — "Way Down in the Hole" by Tom Waits.
Theofanidis, a major "Wire" fan, has crafted three snappy minutes of colorful, expertly crafted orchestral rock. It doesn't add up to a great deal (it doesn't have to), but makes for a cool curtain-raiser, and the BSO gave the world premiere a stylish workout.
Before the concert's second half began, a bittersweet note. Five valued musicians were saluted as they marked their retirement from the BSO after remarkable tenures — bassist Owen Cummings, 40 years; third horn Mary Bisson, 34 years; violist Richard Field, 38 years; violinists Mari Matsumoto, 44 years, and Wayne Taylor, 46 years.
If you go
The BSO performs at 8 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. 8 p.m. Saturday at Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets are $33 to $99. Call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org.