The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra opened its 84th season last night without music director Yuri Temirkanov, who isn't due in town until the end of October, and with a musical evocation of spring, which isn't due until a little later. But the ensemble was in the capable hands of Mario Venzago and sounded ripe and ready for the months of music-making ahead.
Venzago, who memorably directed the BSO's recent Summer MusicFest, brought his characteristic spirit and sensitivity to the program, devoted to two staples of the German repertoire and one second-drawer Russian work that was lucky to be getting the attention. Preceding these came the national anthem in the lush Walter Damrosch orchestration that made a neat segue into the refulgent sound world of Richard Strauss' tone poem "Don Juan."
That work's sexy opening flourish was vividly underlined, and the famous horn theme blazed away mightily. But the performance was more notable for the quieter, quivering passages, which Venzago shaped tenderly. He also milked the sound of silence just before the coda to terrific, tension-knotting effect, letting the mind fill in what the ear could not hear.
A few entrances and chord voicings could have been cleaner, as was the case with Robert Schumann's "Spring" Symphony," but the overall warmth of the orchestra's playing remained consistently satisfying.
Schumann is a particular favorite of Venzago's, as he made clear in a beautifully detailed approach to the symphony. Phrases were allowed plenty of room to breathe, especially in the "Larghetto," which seemed to float in another time zone, each lyrical unfolding of the themes becoming more eloquent. Although the conductor could have tapped more mystery and inner drama in the introduction to the first movement, the finale's mix of lightheartedness and nostalgia emerged most tellingly.
There was much to admire in the BSO's response, including Emily Skala's silken flute work and the smooth power of the horns. One intriguing note: Venzago went back to Schumann's original score and started the initial brass theme on the intended, lower pitch.
Sergei Prokofiev wrote five piano concertos, but could have stopped at three. Number 4, for left hand alone, is a labor of, well, labor, while No. 5 seems always to be trying -- in vain -- to relive the glories of No. 3. Still, a gifted pianist can make a case for almost anything, and Gianluca Cascioli is very gifted.
The young Italian, barely into his 20s, took the Piano Concerto No. 5 and shook it hard until all sorts of engaging ideas fell out. He made the routine melodies sound provocative and took full advantage of opportunities for coloristic effects. Cascioli's sure-fire technique, including crisp octaves and boldly hammered chords, was complemented by subtle nuances that turned the "Larghetto" into a remarkably affecting moment.
Venzago proved just as committed to putting the concerto in the best light and encouraged spirited, nimble support from the BSO.