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BSO offers literature-based music and a blockbuster piano concerto

Lukas Vondracek, pianist, who is the soloist with the Baltimore Symphony in Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3.
Lukas Vondracek, pianist, who is the soloist with the Baltimore Symphony in Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3. (Irene Kim)

Long before audio books, people could hear the gist of literary works from music alone.

Assorted examples are threaded through the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's programming for the 2017-2018 season, starting this weekend with two richly evocative "tone poems" — Tchaikovsky's "Hamlet" and Richard Strauss' "Don Juan."

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These pictorial treats share the bill with the blockbuster Piano Concerto No. 3 by Rachmaninoff. Though not literature-based, it sure is a real page-turner, as packed with incident and emotion as a Tolstoy novel.

The repertoire choices added up to a continuously enjoyable concert Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

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The Tchaikovsky and Strauss items, played back to back on the first half of the program, have a certain structural similarity. Both end softly with a depiction of mortality. Both happen to feature a prominent oboe solo, too.

But each piece has its own distinct personality — plenty of brooding in Tchaikovsky's musical portrait of Shakespeare's ill-fated Danish prince; no end of passion and devil-may-care attitude in the way Strauss evokes the legendary womanizer (inspiration came from a drama by poet Nikolaus von Lenau).

Conductor Marin Alsop tapped into the moody meandering of "Hamlet," highlighting the most theatrical passages and giving lyrical ones room to bloom.

Aside from a bit of fuzziness early on, the BSO sounded firm and polished. The strings, in particular, stood out for their dark, warm sound.

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Hearing "Hamlet" whetted the appetite — OK, my appetite — for more neglected Tchaikovsky tone poems. "The Voyevoda," anyone? Better yet, his most ambitious literature-related score, "Manfred," a symphony based on Byron's epic poem (the truncated version the BSO offered years ago with Yuri Temirkanov doesn't count.)

There is never a shortage of attention to Strauss' "Don Juan," but there was nothing old-hat about Friday's performance.

The music's mix of swash and sensuality emerged with fresh energy under Alsop's deft guidance. The orchestra maintained admirable technical finesse and delivered finely detailed phrasing throughout. When it came to the work's big, famous tune, the horns poured on the tonal gold. And, as she had in "Hamlet," Katherine Needleman gave her solos an inner radiance.

Czech pianist Lukas Vondracek has impressed greatly in his previous BSO appearances over the years, and, now 30, he did so again in a riveting account of the imposing Rachmaninoff concerto.

Vondracek adroitly handled the mercurial nature of the score, taking each mood-swing and tempo-shift in stride. And he made everything feel spontaneous, which the best music-making always does.

Like many a young keyboard artist, Vondracek could not resist speeding when given a chance. But however fast and furious his playing, there was clarity and, above all, expressive impact. He did not slight the gentler side of the concerto, summoning considerable tenderness of tone, poetic subtlety of phrase.

This concerto requires an extra-sturdy rapport between soloist and conductor. That proved no problem for Vondracek and Alsop, who clearly enjoy a chemistry. The orchestra, too, clicked into gear with intensely expressive playing that put the finishing touch on a sizzling performance.

Vondracek didn't need to offer an encore after such a workout, but he obliged the enthusiastic audience with Schumann's "Traumerei," phrased with admirable simplicity, subtlety and a touch of wistfulness.

If you go

The BSO performs 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $29 to $99. Call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org.

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