Sorry seems to be the hardest word, as Elton John observes, but there are some very creative ways around it. Two remarkable examples provide a connective thread in this weekend's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program, which received a classy performance last night at Meyerhoff Hall.
After a three-decade friendship between Johannes Brahms and violinist Joseph Joachim collapsed (the composer sided with Joachim's wife when she was forced, unjustly, into divorce proceedings), Brahms eventually made amends by writing a new piece that Joachim could not resist. The Concerto for Violin and Cello, an ideal symbol of dual harmony, brought the old friends back together in at least a semblance of their former closeness. (Brahms conducted the premiere, with Joachim and a mutual friend as soloists.) The music exudes extraordinary warmth and nostalgia, as well as a feeling of hope.
After establishing himself as a brilliant force in Russian music, Dmitri Shostakovich suddenly found himself condemned by Soviet authorities, reacting to the earthy, musically thorny world of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. In what seemed like a form of atonement, he produced in his Symphony No. 5 such a clear-cut structure and such expressive, mostly very tonal music that officials considered Shostakovich redeemed. They never noticed that they were targets in the score, mocked for their empty-headedness, or that the principal themes of this "apology" were suffering and fear, not compliance and conformity.
James Judd, making his BSO debut substituting for an indisposed Yuri Temirkanov, conducted both works last night with clarity and considerable expressive force. In Brahms' Double Concerto, he did not slight the drama of the opening movement or soften the folksy edge of the finale, but what made the most affecting impression was the way he let the lyricism shine. He coaxed a chamber music-like transparency from the orchestra, allowing the solo players - concertmaster Jonathan Carney and principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn - to do some beautifully intimate, conversational playing.
The smoothness and the character of the music-making reconfirmed the BSO's current strengths, from the first chairs on back. Those qualities were intensified after intermission in a taut, propulsive account of the Shostakovich Fifth.
While Temirkanov would no doubt have generated a different experience (he has a deeply personal connection to this symphony), Judd hardly disappointed. The British conductor, long undervalued in this country, exerted a solid grip on the score. If he was short on intensity right at the start, he quickly produced and sustained it. The second movement had considerable punch and sarcasm, the Largo admirable breadth of line and feeling. The finale's combination of breakneck energy and weighty reflection emerged compellingly.
The ensemble sounded thoroughly cohesive and absorbed. Sterling solos in the wind section, terrific unanimity among the strings, and consistent strength from the brass contributed to a performance that, like the music itself, had no apologies to make.
When: 8 tonight, 3 p.m. tomorrow
Where: Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.