There will be times in the next four weeks -- as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and music director David Zinman travel through the Far East -- when this listener will probably refer to their ever-improving quality of play. With that understood, it must also be said that their final program before the tour, which the orchestra performed Wednesday night in Meyerhoff Hall, demonstrated that this is indeed an orchestra and conductor primed for success in Korea, Taiwan and Japan.
The concert opened with a performance of Dvorak's "Carnaval Overture" that burst with freshness, atmosphere and unforced bravura. The orchestra sounded terrific -- the string playing was lovely, the woodwinds pungent and the brasses brilliant.
About all that was missing -- and it should come during repeated performances of this piece on the tour -- was an absolute unanimity of attack and ensemble.
No qualifications can be attached to the reading of Brahms' Symphony No. 1 that concluded the concert. This is a piece that Zinman and the orchestra could perform creditably within a few moments of a 6 a.m. wake-up call, but nothing was routine about their virile and passionate performance.
This was a Brahms First that brought some of the performances of George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra to mind. There was the powerful sense of architecture in the first movement; a second movement that was unforced and natural; and a final one which gear changes took place unobtrusively, and in which enough power was held in reserve for a thrillingly played coda.
The playing by all hands was lovely, particularly the noble thrust of the horns and trombones and the powerful thunder of the timpani.
Last week one of the BSO's not-so-secret secret weapons was revealed in the extraordinary performances by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who will be one of the two soloists on the tour. Last night another weapon was unsheathed in the form of violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, who will be the orchestra's soloist in performances of Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto. This young Californian may play this piece better than anyone else now before the public.
Unlike Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, who performed the Barber with the BSO two seasons ago, Meyers played without a hint of vulgarity, forced tone or faulty intonation. The first and third movements were executed brilliantly, but placed the emphasis (especially in the first movement) on the work's humanity and youthful rapture.
Even better was her playing in the slow movement, which captured the concerto's Puccini-like yearning and tenderness with the naturalness of a great singer and which brought at least one listener close to tears.