The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has had an uneven crop of guest conductors over the past several seasons, some distinctly second-rate. But Saturday at the Music Center at Strathmore, Carlos Kalmar, an Uruguayan who leads the Oregon Symphony and Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival, pushed and challenged the orchestra to some of the best playing I’ve heard from it.
His vehicle was the rarely heard Symphony No. 1 by William Walton, a virtuoso work that few American ensembles know well; certainly the BSO players were pushed to the brink, the weaker ones falling by the wayside in spots. But Kalmar had the piece thoroughly in hand, and despite the undersize string section the BSO is fielding these days and the orchestra’s lack of familiarity with the piece, he crafted an impressive performance overall. Other conductors might have more expressive batons, but Kalmar’s rhythm comes from his whole body, imparting confidence to the musicians. Aside from a few bobbled wind and brass entrances, the orchestra played with remarkable accuracy and power.