The BBC National Orchestra of Wales and its music director, Tadaaki Otaka, played at the Meyerhoff Tuesday night in the first of two concerts by visiting orchestras while the Baltimore Symphony is on its East Asia tour. Although this orchestra is no match for the BSO, it is a fine ensemble and it was a shame the hall was barely half-filled.
The opening number was Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture," which was given a routine reading. There was was none of the passion or longing that can be brought to the music when one plays more than just notes.
The opening wind chorale sounded like a Sunday school hymn rather than a solemn chorale. The great love theme had its feet solidly on the ground; the climatic music of the clash of the Montague and Capulet's swords simply never caught fire.
Fortunately, the entrance of Shura Cherkassy ignited the proceedings with an amazing performance of the "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" -- a work that received its world premiere in Baltimore Nov. 17, 1934, by the Philadelphia Orchestra. The soloist then was the composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Leopold Stokowski conducted.
The piece sounded like the ink was still wet on the page. Mr. Cherkassy played each variation with fervent excitement. The orchestra first followed, then became a willing partner in a virtuoso dialogue between piano and the various sections.
The variations had a wonderful sense of improvisation, with Mr. Cherkassy drawing a wide variety of colors from each succeeding section. The Dies Irae appearances were truly demonic and the beautiful, song-like 18th variation lived up to its cinematic reputation. The energetic final variation brought the concert's first half to a triumphant conclusion.
The second half opened with "Dance Fantasy," a short but vibrant work by the Welsh composer Daniel Jones. The brass played the opening fanfares and the orchestra showed none of the tentativeness of the first half.
This was another variation type work that was rhythmically active throughout and the orchestra seemed to be having fun with it.
The evening culminated with an idiomatic and heartfelt Enigma Variations of Sir Edward Elgar. Like the Boston Symphony, the BBC used rotary valved trumpets for this late 19th-century score, and the less brilliant instrument perfectly matched the Edwardian character of the music.
Here we have a direct comparison with David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony, who regularly play this score and have an excellent recording of the Enigma Variations for Telarc. This ensemble does not have the flair of the BSO, but its members played their collective hearts out and the Nimrod variation was as eloquent as the greatest performances by Boult or even Elgar himself. Mr. Otaka led his orchestra with clarity and confidence.
After thunderous applause, Mr. Otaka and the orchestra dived into a short but brassy encore by Gareth Wood, the "Cardiff Bay Overture." Like the "Dance Fantasy," this is a short, not too serious showpiece for large orchestra that was played to the hilt by this enthusiastic group.
The real champion of the evening was the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall itself. Hearing another ensemble in the hall reinforced the fact that this is one of the great modern concert halls in the world today. The strings sound ravishing, the winds clear, and the brass and percussion have plenty of impact but are rarely harsh. Next week's Philadelphia Orchestra concert should be a knockout.