Impressive night for BSO with conductor Jakub Hrusa, pianist Andre Watts


You just never know when lightning will strike in a concert hall.

It happened Thursday night at the Meyerhoff, where conductor Jakub Hrusa made his Baltimore Symphony Orchestra debut, generating unmistakable sparks in works by Dvorak and Janacek, and where veteran pianist Andre Watts once again showed 'em who's boss in a bracing account of the Grieg concerto.

Having often complained about the shortage of big-name (or at least moderately big) conductors on the BSO's roster of podium guests, let me hasten to say that I am all for being introduced to genuine talents who are not necessarily well-known on these shores.

I could not have been the only one in the audience Thursday encountering Hrusa, music director of the Prague Philharmonia, for the first time. And I am surely not the only one hoping that orchestra management will get him back for another engagement soon.

Not surprisingly, the program contained two works by great Czech composers. And, not surprisingly, Hrusa was in his element.

We don't get nearly enough Janacek in our diet, so it was doubly satisfying to find music from the composer's brilliant opera "The Cunning Little Vixen" at the start of the program. This suite, put together by a major Janacek champion, the late conductor Charles Mackerras, neatly captures the composer's tingly sound-scape.

Hrusa brought out the earthy lyricism and firm rhythmic pulse of the score, all the while drawing prismatic sounds from the ensemble. Solos by violinists Jonathan Carney and Madeline Adkins and flutist Emily Skala emerged with rich flavor.

In Dvorak's turbulent Symphony No. 7, Hrusa emphasized tension and propulsion, yet kept the performance from ever sounding constricted or predictable. The surges he unleashed in the outer movements had terrific expressive power, and the way he sculpted the second movement's dark melodies proved quite affecting.

Other than the final chord of that second movement, which needed finer balancing, the BSO was in peak technical form. The sense of involvement with the notes proved even more impressive, and it made the performance crackle with electricity.

Speaking of electric, Watts gave the Grieg war horse a rootin'-tootin' workout. It sure was a kick. Not that it wasn't serious music-making, of course, but you just had to smile every now and then at the sheer exuberance and obvious joy in the playing.

For the concerto's plentiful outbursts of drama, Watts got a mighty amount of sound from the Hamburg Steinway brought in for these concerts, without ever turning crude or clangy.

And all of that force was used to considerable communicative effect, so that it never sounded show-off-y (something many a fiery young pianist needs to learn). The first movement cadenza, in particular, became a sensational torrent of emotional release.     

The muscle was deftly balanced by sensitive shaping of poetic moments, when Watts produced refined keyboard colors. 

Hrusa ensured that plenty of vivid tone emerged as well from the orchestra, which seemed to have as much fun as Watts the whole time.

The concert will be repeated Friday at Meyerhoff, Saturday at Stathmore.

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