Gilbert Varga in welcome return to BSO podium; Jonathan Carney aces Saint-Saens concerto

Gilbert Varga made a memorable debut as Baltimore Symphony Orchestra guest conductor four years ago and impressed again in a return engagement last season. He's three for three now.

The Hungarian conductor is back this weekend to lead a hearty program that includes Tchaikovsky's searing "Pathetique" Symphony and a gem of a concerto by Saint-Saens, along with the "Roman Carnival" Overture by Berlioz.

On Friday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, it was clear from the first notes of the overture that it was going to be a night of tightly focused, all-out music-making.

Varga had the players tearing into the rip-roaring portions of the piece, but he was even more attentive to the sweet spots, ensuring transparency and finesse all the while. Jane Marvine sculpted the tender English horn solo with her usual eloquence.

Saint-Saens' Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor is quite a balancing act. The music shifts effortlessly between sweeping drama and subtle poetry. The soloist gets plenty of look-at-my-technique opportunities, but just as many introspective ones. The score treats the orchestra as a full, often quite assertive partner, but still lets the violin show everyone who's boss.

The BSO's concertmaster, Jonathan Carney, seemed in his element with this concerto. He produced a steady, gleaming tone; tackled the trickiest technical challenges confidently; and, above all, phrased the score's most lyrical passages with an elegant touch.

The second movement, with its gentle call-and-response effects and ethereal coda, was the high point. With Varga ensuring smooth, subtle support, Carney and his colleagues played that movement with such sensitivity that the hall seemed to be bathed in a shimmering glow.

Varga proved a masterful interpreter of Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique." He pushed the symphony's emotional buttons hard, but didn't exaggerate; everything felt organic, inevitable. The conductor's flair for shaping a long crescendo proved especially admirable, making each gradation all the more gripping, each crest all the more shattering. 

Other than a few unsettled notes in the brass and some not-quite-centered playing by the cellos and basses at the very end, the orchestra sounded terrific. The intensity onstage recalled the best of the good old days when former music director Yuri Temirkanov led the BSO in soul-shaking Russian repertoire.

The program will be repeated Saturday night at Strathmore, Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff.

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