The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which has been reaching out to the African-American community for many years, did so again Thursday evening. But despite the good intentions, this free concert at New Shiloh Baptist Church in West Baltimore before a large, friendly audience didn't find the BSO at its best.
For that matter, it wasn't even the full BSO, but a chamber orchestra version. The bone-dry acoustics of the church made matters worse; there was no reverberant blanket to envelop any slip of intonation or missed note. And, sad to say, there were lots of blemishes during the evening. Sometimes it sounded as if the ensemble were sight-reading, and badly. Strange.
The program's bookends, "An American Fanfare" and Symphony No. 1 by African-American composer Adolphus Hailstork, long championed by the BSO, received the most effective performances.
Conductor Leslie B. Dunner paced and molded both works with obvious affection. The brass pealed nicely in the alternately jaunty and solemn fanfare. The unabashedly neo-romantic symphony manages to sound thoroughly fresh, with rich layers of thematic activity in the first two movements, and a strong urban pulse in the finale. It deserves to be more widely appreciated. The ensemble articulated it cleanly for the most part and offered a fair amount of warm expression, though some clumsiness in the winds caused more dissonances than Hailstork probably intended.
Haydn's "Le matin" Symphony could have used crisper tempos from Dunner, but his interest in elegant phrasing paid off, especially in the second movement. The orchestra made a generally smooth showing, though there were still ragged edges; the violins, in particular, needed more polish.
Just about everyone needed more polish in Stravinsky's "Pulcinella" Suite, except for colorful solos from bassist David Sheets and trombonist Christopher Dudley. Out-of-tune, careless playing was rampant. Dunner, too, seemed less at home; his was a rhythmically slack, oddly pale reading of the score. And an account of Bartok's "Romanian Folk Dances" lacked tautness, momentum, character and technical finesse.