Conductor Mario Venzago had the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra digging so fiercely into the Overture from Mozart's "Idomeneo" Wednesday evening that he stopped the players after a few measures, turned around and assured the audience that this powerful music really was by Mozart. A cute idea. And a fitting touch of informality for the opening of the BSO's annual Summer MusicFest.
A street-fair atmosphere was attempted outside Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where brightly colored streamers, food and drink stands, and a Latin jazz band greeted patrons before and after the symphony performance. Inside, the Meyerhoff lobby was emphatically festooned as well. If pre-concert raindrops and modest attendance put a slight damper on the evening, the energetic presence of Venzago, the new artistic director of MusicFest, provided considerable compensation.
He called his program "Mediterranean Breezes," a broad enough concept to include the overture and ballet music from Mozart's "Idomeneo" (that opera is set in Crete), two non-aquatic French works (well, France has a Mediterranean coast) and Mendelssohn's "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage" (the piece isn't sea-specific, but close enough).
The Mozart and Mendelssohn selections, the evening's bookends, made the greatest impression. Once he re-started the "Idomeneo" Overture, Venzago continually stressed its dramatic edge, its dark, rich chords and fiery melodic flashes. In the ballet music, he also looked for the muscularity behind the notes, making the most of dynamic accents and mighty crescendos. Although the orchestra was reduced to 18th century proportions, there was still plenty of weight and warmth. A few blurred edges aside, there was admirable clarity of articulation as well.
The Mendelssohn item likewise benefited from Venzago's keen attention to subtle details and his ability to convey the music's vivid imagery. The first, stark notes which conjure up a windless ocean were superbly realized; Emily Skala's gently rising flute solo, representing the long-awaited breeze, had just the right touch of spontaneity; the joyous arrival portside had a grand sweep; the unexpectedly soft coda, with its hint of thanksgiving, inspired an especially tender sound from the strings.
Several people in the audience seemed determined to drown out the delicate start of Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" with coughs, but Venzago and the ensemble still managed to create a sense of timelessness and mystery. Subsequently, the performance grew less atmospheric, less sensual. The orchestra seemed more dutiful than deeply involved, though colorful contributions from Skala and other wind soloists proved rewarding.
The account of Ravel's Piano Concerto, featuring distinguished Italian pianist Bruno Canino, was disappointing. Although Venzago kept things basically on track, the BSO didn't sound fully cohesive; perhaps limited rehearsal was to blame.
Canino's impersonal phrasing presumably was intentional.
In the jazz-inflected outer movements, he had the notes, but not the sparkle and sauciness. The slow movement, one of the most sublime passages in all 20th century music, became a wooden exercise. The left hand churned out oom-pah-pah accompaniment to an inelegantly plunked-out melody line. It may well be that this music should not be overly romanticized, but surely it should have more heart and more reflective poetry than this.
The BSO's Summer MusicFest continues today with pre-concert festivities at 5:30 p.m., chamber music at 6:30 and an orchestra concert at 7:30. Call 410-783-8000.