The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's latest program celebrates the art of the unexpected. It also provides one of the season's greatest highs so far.
Just about everything Charles Ives wrote defied the expectations of his day, and there's plenty of defiance left, decades after his death.
No one expected a disgruntled, 84-year-old Richard Strauss to produce an impossibly radiant farewell a year before he died, let alone some of the most transcendent sounds in all of music.
And the folks who cheered the Fifth Symphony by Shostakovich when it was introduced in 1937 sure weren't figuring on the convention-bending ideas he had for his Sixth two years later.
Last night's first airing of this program at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall also offered something that wasn't at all unexpected - BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov's incisiveness.
His understanding of Shostakovich's sound-world - and the realm of emotion behind it - remains unsurpassed today. And, as he has revealed on past occasions here, he has considerable appreciation for the work of Ives and Strauss, too.
This time, he seemed doubly inspired by each composer, and drew from the orchestra playing that, even allowing for intermittent raggedness in articulation, burned with expressive commitment.
The concert would have been worth attending just for the opportunity to hear such a sumptuous, affecting account of the Four Last Songs of Strauss.
Janice Chandler-Eteme has an ideal voice for these pieces, with a distinctively rich timbre that holds steady in all registers. The soprano truly soared through in this music, but not for the mere sensual pleasure of climbing melodic peaks. She got deep into the poetry that Strauss immortalized in song.
When, for example, she reached the lines in Beim Schlafengehen about the soul floating free into "the magic circle of the night," Chandler-Eteme produced an ecstatic release of tone and feeling. And the way she molded the word Abendrot (dusk) in the final song, pouring everything she had into each syllable, was the stuff of genuine catharsis.
Temirkanov mostly succeeded in balancing the orchestra to avoid covering the singer, while relishing the autumnal patina of the instrumentation and achieving his own enriching effect with phrasing.
There was one problem last night - a few listeners loudly jumped the gun with applause before the last few measures were played. Chalk that up as an unexpected crime.
Nearly a century after its creation, Ives' Central Park in the Dark still sounds deliciously modern. While the strings ruminate over a series of soft, not entirely consonant chords to suggest what the composer called "silent darkness," curious sounds pop up - woodwind musings, bursts of the Tin Pan Alley ragtime ditty "Hello, My Baby," a percussive firestorm - only to dissipate in the night.
Nowadays, a nocturnal walk through Central Park would probably suggest much scarier sounds; Ives conjured up a nostalgic image of a welcoming world with endless possibilities, fascinating curiosities. Temirkanov seemed strongly attuned to that mood.
Some of the rag sound-bites could have been cleaner, but the orchestra's atmospheric playing hit home. (I wish Temirkanov would tackle one of the Ives symphonies before stepping down as music director.)
With its long, solemn opening movement, followed by two short, wildly propulsive workouts, Shostakovich's Sixth suggests at first glance a partial torso. But there's method in this sadness and sudden energy, this darkness and half-light.
As always, the composer is fighting demons. In the end, he doesn't so much defeat them as dismiss them with disarming, irreverent, Rossini-like glee.
Again, Temirkanov was a master creator of mood and deliverer of message. The symphony emerged detail by gripping detail, culminating in a terrific jolt from an energized, virtuosic BSO.
Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
When: 8 p.m. tonight, 11 a.m. tomorrow
Tickets: $20 to $75
Call: 410-783-8000 or visit www.baltimoresymphony.org