Yuri Temirkanov led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on a hearty dig into the bedrock of classical music last night and struck a fair amount of gold.
The program marked the start of the orchestra's 86th season (the 20th at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall) and the first of two weekends' worth of German repertoire - Beethoven, Weber, Schumann, Brahms, Bruch and Strauss.
You can't get more solidly grounded than that.
All of this fare will be featured on BSO's coming tour to Japan, where audiences are accustomed to hearing a lot of German music played by a lot of top-flight ensembles. Judging by last night's results, the BSO should measure up quite strongly to the competition.
Temirkanov, long typecast as a Russian music interpreter, can bring remarkable intensity and incisiveness to German works. Invariably, he applies a level of drama, weight and spontaneity, often at odds with the transparent, overly precise style widely favored today in this material.
After the traditional playing of the national anthem, the conductor turned to one of those little miracles of German music, the Overture to Weber's Oberon.
From the pensive opening horn solo to the swirling close, it's a masterpiece of orchestration and organization, not to mention atmosphere. Temirkanov demonstrated keen interest in the myriad colors of the score, its suspense and magic.
The orchestra responded in sensitive, almost always finely polished fashion; the music was alive and tingling from the first measures.
It was clear in the Weber selection that the BSO strings, which bear the music director's stamp more strikingly than any other section in the ensemble, were going to have a memorable night.
The primary evidence came later in the performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 4.
There certainly was much to savor the last time the BSO played this piece with Temirkanov in January 2001, but it's a different orchestra now.
With new concertmaster Jonathan Carney and new principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn on hand, the violins and cellos sounded creamier and warmer than ever.
But the violas were not about to be overshadowed, making the most of their opportunities to shine.
Weaknesses apparent back in 2001 cropped up again (primarily a loss of footing by the horns), though the overall intensity of the music-making had a way of smoothing over the patchy moments.
What counted most was the way phrases were given such character and depth, the way the pressure kept building in each movement toward the highest peak of lyricism.
Temirkanov tellingly emphasized the sighing theme of the opening movement, the restlessness and melancholy of the Andante (the final chord could have benefited from a longer hold).
He had the third movement charging along nicely and took great care to give the finale's emotional peaks and valleys equal attention.
In the most misty of those valleys, flute, oboe and clarinet solos sang out beautifully. At their best, the trombones made a seamless, majestic sound.
For Schumann's Piano Concerto, Temirkanov kept the pacing taut and had the ensemble producing a dark, vibrant fabric to surround Michie Koyama's respectable account of the solo part.
More musical personality and a more sparkling, nuanced technique would have made the award-winning Japanese pianist's contributions more substantial.
What: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
When: 8 tonight
Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
Tickets: $26 to $72