Triple Players: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, April 15, 2010

Occasionally, I complain that orchestras do not program with a coherent theme in mind for the works they perform in a concert. After having attended the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s performance under guest conductor Juanjo Mena at the Music Center at Strathmore on Thursday night, I realized that the somewhat incoherent-seeming program actually explores the theme of Works With Open, Ambiguous Harmonies Developed and Resolved in Interesting Ways. Advertising such a theme to the public would daunt even the most stalwart public-relations guru, but under Mena’s baton the connecting thread emerged plain as day. And, just as I always hope, hearing these three works together gave a new dimension to the whole concert — especially given the outstanding performances of each of the works themselves.

Ottorino Resphigi’s third suite of transcriptions of Ancient Airs and Dances (or, as he likes to number it in Ye Olde Style, “No. III”) begins with a sweet, gentle string-orchestra rendition of an anonymous 16th-century lute piece — not your normal orchestral showcase, but the BSO strings under Mena played with such effortless delicacy and made such gorgeous shades of tone-color that it sure sounded like one. The viola section had the most arresting moment with its melodic statement at the beginning and end of the second movement, so dark and burnished it seemed to be hiding some secret ardor beneath its own surface. Yet the strings played with bite when called for as well, notably in the broad multiple-stopped chords of the fourth movement Passacaglia.

You may remember Joaquín Rodrigo from the Concierto de Aranjuez, by far his most popular work, and if you like that one, you’ll probably like Concierto de Estió, for violin and orchestra, for which BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney took on soloist duties on Thursday. Like the one straight outta Aranjuez, the one from Estió features light scoring for an orchestra that mostly stays out of the soloist’s way, either playing a main theme underneath virtuoso figurations, accompanying a solo exposition of the main theme, or simply giving the soloist a breather. This last proves especially crucial in the Concierto de Estió, whose solo part in the outer movement demands skein after skein of highly rhythmic, fast notes to be projected over the orchestra; Rodrigo gives just enough breaks to avoid a worker’s comp claim from the violin soloist. All this bustle ultimately left a kinetic impression, rather than a melodic one (there is a reason why Aranjuez is more popular). However, Carney seems to best serve music that requires some swagger, and those movements sure do depend on the soloist’s ability to saw it out with style.

Like Aranjuez, the Concierto de Estió hit its emotional highs in its slow movement, and here Carney wore his heart on his sleeve in deft variations on a dark, graceful Siciliana theme, even as he continued his swaggerific domination of the musical soundscape. Mena admirably managed the accompaniment, gauging it to Carney’s sound and the liveness of the hall, helping create an aching climax before Carney’s big cadenza, in which Rodrigo proves he just can’t resist a pointless idea by forcing together the theme of the first movement and the Siciliana. Still, for all my reservations, I enjoyed making the acquaintance of this concierto, particularly in this performance.

Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, “The Inextinguishable,” followed intermission. (OK, let’s step back: Even without the theme I discovered, doesn’t this sound like a cool program? Three 20th-century works, written by composers whose music was characteristic of their respective national origins? Maybe it’s just me, although the Music Center was surprisingly full on Thursday.) The through-composed work allowed Mena the opportunity to explore a larger landscape full of incident that develops into an abstract plot as the work progresses: the victory of the titularly inextinguishable E major over a murky, dangerous-sounding D minor.

Mena’s reading didn’t emphasize the structure, preferring to vividly characterize each passing moment, a strategy that succeeded thanks to Mena’s previously mentioned ear for color and the fine-grained, sensitive playing the BSO provided under his direction. Occasionally I felt that Mena could have pulled back a little and let the music blossom organically, but no one could complain about the spine-tingling quiet strings that led us from the first movement to the second, or the aggressive twists and turns in the finale, complete with overwhelming power from the Battlin’ Tritone Timpanists that propel this work’s closing moments.

The concert repeats Saturday and Sunday, and it’s worth the trip for anyone with the slightest curiosity about the three underexposed works on this program, ’cause you ain’t gonna hear them played much better than this anywhere.

Other People’s Perspectives: Tim Smith.

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