The best thing about yesterday evening's uninspiring Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert in Meyerhoff Hall was the soloist, guitarist Manuel Barrueco.
Barrueco, who teaches at the Peabody Conservatory, is one of our greatest guitarists. He has a command of the instrument that includes virtuosity all the more impressive for its unobtrusiveness; remarkable dynamic control, and a supple rhythm that endows his performances with almost improvisational freedom. That he is also a great musician was obvious from the way he played the slow movement in Vivaldi's Concerto in D -- one of the two concerto's on yesterday's program. Phrases, which might have sounded mechanical in other hands, had an affectingly vocal quality. And when the music moved quickly, Barrueco was dazzling. And he was just as impressive in Mauro Giuliani's elegant Concerto No. 1 in A Major.
Unfortunately, these amiable pieces were served on what was really a pops program that -- were it food -- would have made a McDonald's "Happy Meal" seem like serious cuisine: a short overture by Handel in an Elgar orchestration; the intermezzos from Act III of Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" and Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana," and Respighi's "The Pines of Rome." Music can be fun as well as serious, but listening to this program was like being served a beer that was all head. It not only left one thirsty, but frustrated as well.
The performances didn't help matters much. The orchestra and guest conductor James Paul gave Barrueco considerate accompaniments -- no easy thing even when the guitar is amplified as it was in this performance. The performances of the two familiar operatic excerpts were about what one would have expected from a decent pit orchestra -- such as the one across the street performing Puccini's "Manon" at the Lyric Opera House.
And Respighi's "The Pines of Rome" has no business on a program unless it sounds spectacular -- as it did several years back when the BSO performed it under guest conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos. Last night's performance, however, sounded as if it was conducted (and played) by the numbers.
The program will be repeated in Meyerhoff tonight at 8:15 and Sunday afternoon at 3.