The latest example of the ever-marketable phenomenon known as "crossover music" hit Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Wednesday evening in the form of Mark O'Connor's Double Concerto for Two Violins. It's a busy, sometimes raucous, piece that attempts to fuse jazz, blues and O'Connor's specialty, country fiddling, into something like a grand, classical concerto. It almost succeeds.
The three-movement, roughly half-hour work had a lot going for it in terms of performance. The soloists were the composer himself, who can play rings around many a traditional violinist, and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, no slouch herself when it comes to musical showmanship. They were backed up by an energized Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Gunther Herbig, who often broke into quite a nimble two-step on the podium. And the audience, which was even smaller than for the season-opening program earlier this month, gave the Double Concerto a warm welcome.
For all of the razzle-dazzle, though, the piece seemed rather empty at the core. For one thing, O'Connor's thematic ideas don't have enough meat on their bones; the two violinists do a lot of jamming - some improvised, most written out - on very thin melodies. And their constant interplay, with one chasing after the other's riffs, settles into predictable patterns and wears thin. There's just a little too much in the way of cutesy, anything-you-can-fiddle-I-can-fiddle-finer stuff.
The composer takes a curious approach to the orchestra. More often than not, only one section at a time gets into the action, the strings or the winds. (When both do get combined, the solo violins are easily drowned out.) A more integrated approach to instrumentation might give the concerto greater cohesion. The work could use a firmer structure, too; the music, especially in the finale, is broken up into too many separate incidents, creating an awkward stop-and-go syndrome.
But, hey, it's certainly entertaining. And there are some very persuasive moments along the way. The gently swinging second movement, for example, artfully conjures up smoky nightclubs of yore, and its quizzical ending makes a neat effect.
O'Connor's fiddling was as virtuosic as ever; Salerno-Sonnenberg kept up with him every step of the way. Once past a ragged start, the BSO strings offered some colorful, animated playing as well. The brass had plenty of spice.
The rest of the evening was devoted to a Tchaikovsky warhorse - Symphony No. 5. It was trotted out in great style, making a vivid follow-up to the stunning account of the Sixth Symphony last June with BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov.
Herbig conducted from memory and from the heart. He caught the portent of the opening passage tellingly, shaped the "Andante cantabile" with exceptional eloquence, and gave the waltz movement affectionate, beautifully detailed attention. The finale's deep-rooted drama could have been even more boldly outlined - the last notes, in particular, were a let-down - but this was still a powerful, involving performance.
The strings produced a rich, supple sound; the trumpets nailed their big moments vividly; superb woodwind contributions were the rule.