The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra wasn't always on its best behavior technically during a performance Tuesday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, and the reverberation-challenged acoustics in Alumni Hall were no help. But the program, part of the Distinguished Artist Series, still had its rewards.
To begin with, there was thoughtful, dynamic conducting from David Alan Miller, music director of the Albany Symphony Orchestra. He demonstrated considerable appreciation for subtle details in the familiar suite from Copland's Appalachian Spring and the vivid Fifth Symphony by Sibelius.
Both works were effectively paced. The former was unhurried, even in the jauntier passages; the latter had a steady propulsion.
Although a startling number of flubs from the horn section and a ragged entrance or two in the ensemble took a toll in the Copland performance, the playing generated a strong expressive current, especially by the time the quotation of the Shaker hymn arrived. The hushed closing measures emerged with great tenderness.
The Sibelius score conveys all the grandeur of an Ansel Adams photograph (with Finnish overtones); trees and mountains and lakes seem to rise up at every new turn of phrase. Wildlife, particularly regal swans, pass by to the sound of evocative tunes.
Miller successfully tapped this imagery, but more importantly, made sure the music unfolded in cohesive, organic fashion. There was a nearly unbroken arch to the performance, leading from the vague stirrings of the opening movement to the heaven-opening hammer-strokes of the final chords. Much of the BSO's work here was admirably controlled and full of character.
Between the Copland and Sibelius pieces was another popular item, Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, featuring young piano soloist Shai Wosner, a student of Emanuel Ax who has been picking up competition prizes and important concert gigs lately. He demonstrated impressive command of the score and resisted the temptation to over-interpret it.
A feathery articulation enabled the pianist to produce sparkling colors from the keyboard. Good old-fashioned thunder was summoned when necessary, but Wosner's assured handling of the Rhapsody's more delicate, sometimes downright impish side commanded the most attention. Miller and the orchestra held up their side of things ably.