The devil, in various guises, cavorted through the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Summer MusicFest program Wednesday evening at Meyerhoff Hall, providing a helluva good time.
There was Mephistopheles, stirring up hormones in Liszt's Mephisto Waltz. And Paganini, the violinist/composer whose ability to zip through fiendishly difficult music had people convinced he had sold his soul to Beelzebub. And Till Eulenspiegel, the devilish prankster from the Middle Ages immortalized in a Richard Strauss tone poem. And Wagner, a true devil of a man, but a god of a composer.
The Wagner excerpt - the Prelude to Act 1 of "Lohengrin" - was one of the festival's most memorable moments so far. MusicFest director Mario Venzago first regaled the small audience with an endearing anecdote about how he hated "Lohengrin" until his pregnant wife started craving the Prelude, and then conducted an extraordinarily rapt performance of it.
With a spacious tempo and his familiar concern for dynamic nuances, Venzago had the incandescent music unfolding in one unbroken breath, as if in a dream, timeless and tender. The arc of the Prelude, rising inexorably to a reverential kind of climax and back down to its original vaporous state, was superbly traced. Given the breadth and beauty of Venzago's interpretation, there should definitely be more Wagner on his programs next summer.
Except for some fraying in the violins in the final seconds, the BSO delivered the Prelude with admirable control, cohesiveness and sensitivity. There was impressive work, too, in "Till Eulenspiegel," especially from the horn and clarinet soloists and the songful viola section, and a good deal of sizzle in the Liszt opus.
The orchestra was not the evening's only star. The other was a Greek violinist bearing gifts of uncommon technical polish, sensuous tone and richly animated phrasing. Even among today's sizable field of virtuosic fiddlers, Leonidas Kavakos stands out for the calm authority of his playing, the penetrating musicality behind it.
Kavakos tackled three bravura pieces and got far beyond their show-off elements. The long, brooding, unaccompanied opening of Ravel's "Tzigane," the ultimate synthesis of gypsy airs and emotions, was etched in luscious, dark colors. The ensuing dance episodes were tossed off with terrific zest, every digital challenge along the way met with uncanny aplomb.
In Saint-Saens' "Havanaise," Kavakos spun out silken threads of sound and tied them together into a seductive package. If some of the most treacherous, pyrotechnic passages in the "La campanella" movement from Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 2 could have been cleaner in execution, the fiddler's overall articulation was smooth and brilliant, with lots of subtle touches unleashing the music's inner charms. Venzago and the ensemble gave Kavakos attentive support throughout.
MusicFest concludes today at Meyerhoff Hall. At 6:30 p.m., Schumann's Piano Quintet, Op. 44, will be performed by guest artists Kavakos, cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Eduardus Halim and violinist Kenneth Goldstein and violist Noah Chavez of the BSO. The orchestral concert, at 7:30 p.m., includes Schumann's Cello Concerto with Isserlis, Mozart's "Prague" Symphony and works by Rossini and Ravel. Call 410-783-8000.