Leonard Slatkin returned this week to guest-conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's for the first time in 15 years and brought with him an eclectic bag of repertoire. The result is that he kills two birds with one-half a program - Rossini's Thieving Magpie Overture and, via a piece composed by Slatkin himself, The Raven - and spends the remainder in the earthy realm of the Symphony No. 2 by Sibelius.
That well-worn Sibelius score provided the most rewards last night at the Music Center at Strathmore. Slatkin, former music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and newly arrived music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, was in his element here.
He maintained a fundamental propulsion that yielded considerable tension, enabling the expansive second movement to hold together firmly. When it came to the most songful elements, the conductor allowed plenty of breathing room, as in the melancholy middle portion of the scherzo. The build-up to the initial appearance of the famous, uplifting tune in the finale could have been more expansive and emotional, but its reappearance subsequently had a great weight.
The BSO sounded sturdy, for the most part, with notable solo work by oboist Katherine Needleman, richly sonorous chords from the brass. From the strings, there was a mix of bravura (the wild scurrying in that scherzo, for example) and dark lyricism (the cellos in the second movement). Occasional fuzziness of attack should clear up for the repeat performances in Baltimore.
Rossini's overture, with its assertive snare drums and galloping tunes, is one of his most entertaining. Slatkin paced it effectively, drawing out some of the most colorful notions in the score, but he didn't always get the tightest response from the ensemble.
As for The Raven, well, it was a little too late for Halloween, when it would have seemed right at home in a spooky-theme concert, and a little too early for Edgar Allan Poe's 200th birthday (that's in January). But Slatkin's treatment of Poe's verses about the "Nevermore"-quothing avian, along with four other poems, for narrator and orchestra provided a reminder of how brilliantly the poet of the macabre manipulated language and made words sing.
Composed in 1971 for the indelible Vincent Price to recite, the piece has been assigned to five speakers in the BSO's presentation. That, Slatkin told last night's audience, allowed the "wonderful, musical nature of these texts" to come through with extra coloring. And so it did.
Although amplification was spotty, the narrators delivered vividly. John Astin, forever linked to his role on TV's The Addams Family, recited "The Raven" with particular finesse. The other participants: Denise Diggs ("Romance"), Rosemary Knower (a delightfully hysterical account of "The Bells"), Jon Spelman ("The Coliseum") and Tony Tsendeas ("The Sleeper").
Unfortunately, what underscores the poems is little more than innocuous, if artfully crafted, movie music. Some crashing dissonant chords, ominous bells and percussion, brass fanfares out of a Hollywood epic about ancient Rome (for "The Coliseum," of course), and so on. It just doesn't add up to much. I didn't mind hearing it once, but nevermore.
IF YOU GO
The BSO performs at 8 p.m. tonight and tomorrow at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $20 to $60. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.