Last night the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra looked back 75 years with the clarity and freshness that are characteristic of the current orchestra and its music director, David Zinman.
Its program in Meyerhoff Hall duplicated the one that a Baltimore Symphony played on Feb. 11, 1916. That orchestra was neither the first nor the last in this city's history (the current BSO's direct ancestor was actually formed less than 50 years ago), but the important thing is this: Last night's superb concert demonstrated that this orchestra is an institution to be treasured.
The undermanned -- there were no women players in those days -- orchestra of 75 years ago could not have played Wagner's Tannhauser overture with such accuracy, fire and weight. It was a performance that brought the concert to a thrillingconclusion -- how wonderful the BSO lower brass are -- and it made one wish that Zinman programmed more Wagner.
Except for Beethoven's Symphony No. 8, the rest of the program was, as one would expect, somewhat old-fashioned: a once-popular tone poem of Saint-Saens ("Le Rouet d'Omphale") and soprano arias by Mozart ("L'Amero, Saro Costante" from "Il Re Pastore") and by Delibes (the "Bell Song" from "Lakme").
The Saint-Saens was beautifully played and demonstrated all the virtues that Zinman has fostered in this Baltimore orchestra: wonderful disci
pline and beautiful tone. This perpetual motion piece was played by an orchestral engine that has become one of the smoothest in the land.
The soprano arias were sung by Harolyn Blackwell with panache and delicacy. In the Mozart, she demonstrated a rare upper register pianissimo and even rarer ability to touch the heart; in the high-flying coloratura of the Delibes, she showed off a spectacular technique that was
matched by the kind of charisma that makes an audience enjoy such pyrotechnics even more.
By this point, little need be said about Zinman's Beethoven. Last night's symphony, which was played by a chamber orchestra-sized ensemble, featured whiplash clarity, corner-turning tempos and irreverent wit.
But perhaps something should be said about the fact that the BSO seems unable to celebrate special occasions without a script by playwright Ian Strasfogel -- whether about Mozart, Beethoven or, in last night's case, Baltimore circa 1916. Last night's was tedious, obvious and patronizingly cute.