After the intensity of Leonard Bernstein's Mass, the provocative work that occupied the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for the past two weeks and garnered glowing notices from Washington to New York, last night's comfort-food program must have provided a welcome return to normality.
Led by an exceptional guest conductor, Ludovic Morlot, the musicians sounded cohesive and dynamic as they addressed three repertoire standards in a less-than-filled Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
To start, there was a fun, if unintentional, nod to Halloween - The Sorcerer's Apprentice, by Paul Dukas. Perhaps forever destined to be associated with Walt Disney's Fantasia, where it was memorably used for a Mickey Mouse sequence, the piece stands as solidly as ever on its own. It exudes a delectable combination of the spooky and the zany, elements that Morlot unlocked with a deft touch.
The orchestra delivered tight, colorful playing, with the bassoons having a particularly effective workout.
Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5, his most popular entry in that genre, served as a fitting showcase for soloist Nikolaj Znaider, one of the most innately eloquent fiddlers on the scene today. His tone filled the hall easily and vibrantly, while his phrasing revealed a wealth of imaginative ideas and finely nuanced dynamics. He had the music sounding spontaneous and, quite often, surprisingly sensual.
Morlot, who offered his own refined, poetic instincts throughout, drew beautifully shaded playing from the strings, subtly colored articulation from the winds.
After intermission the conductor trotted out a war horse that doesn't always get as much respect as it did decades ago, the Symphony in D minor by Cesar Franck. Nearly Wagnerian in its obsession with putting a series of themes through all sorts of permutations, the late-1880s score can turn into a heavy discourse in the wrong hands. No wonder one early critic accused Franck of having "very little to say, but [proclaiming] it with the conviction of the pontiff defining dogma."
Last night, the piece had a great deal to say, and said it without the slightest trace of stuffiness, for Morlot applied a steady momentum and assured that each expressive peak and each reflective valley registered with equal power.
I wouldn't have minded a little more breadth and space here and there, but the structural tautness the conductor achieved paid great dividends. The weight he gave the coda of the first movement was striking; the moody lyricism of the second movement registered deeply; the sense of ecstatic release in the finale proved palpable.
The BSO's response was firm and vivid, with the strings producing an especially rich tone. Jane Marvine's English horn solos purred tellingly.
The whole ensemble enjoyed an extra bonus acoustically from the seating arrangement. Rather than multiple risers, as has been customary, everyone was tightly grouped together on the floor. It's something former music director Yuri Temirkanov advocated several years ago. He couldn't drum up enthusiasm for the idea then, but I think he was right.
At least from where I was sitting on the main level, the configuration onstage yielded a fuller, more smoothly balanced sound that enabled the strings to hold their own against the brass, even at full throttle.
IF YOU GO
The BSO performs at 8 tonight and 11 a.m. tomorrow at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $20 to $60. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.