An air of mystery weaves its way through the latest Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program.
Mendelssohn's souvenir of a Scottish visit, the Hebrides Overture, suggests an unstated, melancholy drama underneath the obvious one taking place on a surface awash in sea swells.
The second movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 conjures up an unexpectedly intense, internal pain, but we can never be sure whether it reveals secrets about the composer's psyche, or just plays to our own preconceived notions.
And, although Elgar famously announced that an unheard, master-theme lies behind his Enigma Variations, no one has ever determined what that melody is -- or if there really is one. Did he just want to pull our legs for all eternity?
This BSO musical mystery tour was to have been led by Yuri Temirkanov, but he canceled a three-week season wrap-up to tend to an aching back. Fortunately, Yan Pascal Tortelier was available to take over this particular program.
The Frenchman's keen ear for orchestral coloring and flair for both subtle and explosive expression make him nicely suited to the ebb and flow of Mendelssohn's scenic postcard, the elegance of Mozart's sound-world and the brilliant variety of Elgar's note-play.
On Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Tortelier let the overture evolve naturally from a slow, almost solemn start. He could have generated more atmosphere in the closing moments, but, elsewhere, the music's evocative power registered strongly. For the most part, so did the BSO's playing.
Underrated Argentine pianist Bruno Leonardo Gelber, returning to the hall for the first time in 15 years, sculpted the lines of the Mozart concerto with considerable sensitivity. His articulation sounded less precise and effortless than when I last heard him, giving passionate, indelible performances of Brahms and Rachmaninoff concertos in Florida during the '90s.
But Gelber's innate artistry proved as impressive as ever, nowhere more so than in the cloud-covered Adagio, which inspired a refined poetry. He put a bright spin on the finale's jubilant release. Tortelier partnered the pianist seamlessly, and coaxed a warm, cohesive response from the ensemble.
The conductor had Elgar's enigmatic masterpiece moving sturdily, even grippingly from its shadowy opening to its assertive, affirmative close. He did not linger over things (Temirkanov would almost certainly have taken a broader, more overtly emotional approach to the much-loved Nimrod variation), but still had the score's lyricism glowing effectively.
Many delicate instrumental effects emerged in unusual, revealing detail. The percussive churning in the Romanza, though, was applied too heavily.
The BSO dug into the music impressively. Violins, woodwinds and trombones seemed especially charged by the experience.
Where: Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
When: 8 tonight at Strathmore; 3 p.m. tomorrow at Meyerhoff
Tickets: Limited availability at Strathmore; $27 to $75 at Meyerhoff