Spano guides a spirited BSO Elegant performances of Russian works, Adams concerto

Robert Spano
Baltimore Sun

By Tim Smith

These haven't been the most upbeat of times for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, financially speaking, what with pay cuts, furloughs and all the other fallout from the Great Recession. But they sure are banner times, musically speaking.

With just a few exceptions, the ensemble has performed at a solid, spirited level for the past tough year. The playing is particularly high this week, with the return of Robert Spano to the podium as guest conductor, after a decade's absence (it shouldn't have taken so long for him to be re-engaged).

Spano, music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra since 2001, exuded a remarkable stylistic elegance Thursday night in a program of two Russian war horses, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" and Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite, and a major contemporary American work, the Violin Concerto by John Adams.

Each benefited as much from the conductor's calm authority as from his way of ensuring that the communicative richness of each score registered. And the BSO sounded terrific all the way through - well, OK, there were a couple of wayward woodwind notes and maybe a slightly fuzzy passage here or there, but we're still talking about an orchestra at the top of its expressive game.

In "Scheherazade," Spano's rhythmic flexibility for the gentlest portions of the score yielded an extra layer of beauty; the wilder moments charged along. The conductor judged crescendos well, so that there was a genuine payoff at the peak. Taking nothing in the well-worn music for granted, Spano created an unusually fresh, involving experience, and coaxed considerable clarity and warmth from the orchestra.

Adding immensely to the vividness of the performance was concertmaster Jonathan Carney, who articulated the plentiful, challenging violin solos with technical aplomb and phrasing of a thoroughly beguiling nature.

There was another demonstration of fiddle power when Leila Josefowicz took the stage to tackle the Adams concerto, which requires the soloist play almost continually.

This 1995 work is no mere showpiece. It's an intense drama with the violin as an assertive central character and the orchestras as a kind of animated Greek chorus. Adams was already way past the label of minimalist composer when he wrote the concerto. The style is more complex in thematic material, thicker in harmony, with a fundamental streak of post-Wagnerian romanticism underneath.

Josefowicz, one of today's most brilliant violinists, sailed through the technical demands in seemingly effortless fashion.

Turning to the "Firebird," the conductor focused on nuance more than splash, drawing some lovely sonic textures from the ensemble, but still ensuring that there was plenty of force where it counted. The strings excelled, as they had in "Scheherazade," and there were several supple solos from the woodwinds and brass.