If you don't mind a touch of hyperbole, you could call the latest Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program "a coalition of the thrilling" - an American soprano, a Canadian baritone, an Italian pianist, a French conductor, a French composer, two Austrian composers and an Indian poet. If "thrilling" isn't quite right, "rewarding" certainly is.
Of particular interest Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall was the BSO's first performance of Anton Zemlinsky's 80-year-old Lyric Symphony, one of the last, grand sighs of post-romantic sentiment. This score for two vocalists and orchestra is steeped in the sound worlds of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. But the end result is pure Zemlinsky - a combination of keen intellect and churning emotion.
The Lyric Symphony, using exquisitely crafted poetry by Rabindranath Tagore, begins with thirst - "I am full of desires ... I am a stranger in a strange land" - and ends with bittersweet knowledge. There is a peaceful acceptance of the permanent and impermanent nature of love, the elusiveness of dreams, the need to keep seeking for answers to questions of the heart and the soul. Sumptuous harmonies, recurring themes and a brilliant palette of orchestration propel this process of self-discovery. (For Zemlinsky himself, it was probably also a musical exorcism of the ghost of the great, unfulfilled love of his life.)
Conductor Emmanuel Krivine revealed a remarkable affinity for the piece. Without sacrificing sensitivity, he propelled the score along, as if in a single breath. He had the BSO unleashing vast waves of sound that sometimes swamped the singers, but what wonderful waves they were, especially from the golden-toned strings. A rocky horn and unsubtle trumpet in the last movement briefly broke the spell.
Brett Polegato's warm, smooth baritone and unfailingly communicative phrasing proved ideal for this music. This artist should be back soon; how about for Mahler? Soprano Jessica Jones had some tentative moments, but also soared beautifully into Zemlinsky's most luminous melodies.
The all-important words in this symphony were handed out to the audience, but no one bothered to bring the house lights up so they could be read comfortably. (Perhaps if people had been able to feel more connected to the experience, there wouldn't have been so many distractions around me - a woman playing Jingle Bells with her bracelets, a man letting out staccato yawns every five minutes, etc.)
Earlier in the program there was a splendid account of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 26. Gianliuca Cascioli offered not just crystalline articulation at the keyboard, but unusually refined nuances of dynamics and a silken tone. Instead of waiting meekly while the orchestra played the opening section of the first movement, as is customary in our time, he played right along, as was customary in Mozart's. At every turn, he had something interesting to say musically; the performance exuded charm and character. Krivine and an appropriately chamber-sized complement of players offered stylish (if, in the violins, slightly wiry) support.
The bounding Roman Carnival Overture by Berlioz got a vivid push from Krivine and razzle-dazzle from the BSO. Jane Marvine's English horn solo purred nicely.
Events elsewhere were not forgotten; the evening opened with the national anthem.
The concert will be repeated at 3 p.m. tomorrow at Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. For tickets, call 410-783-8000.