The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is in transition. Its new boss, conductor Yuri Temirkanov, who also directs Russia's St. Petersburg Philharmonic and guest-conducts around the world, won't be making his inaugural appearance as Baltimore's new music director until late January. After that he'll lead four more concerts in the 1999-2000 season, and they are notable highlights in a season that, by past Baltimore standards, looks otherwise rather staid.
In his 13 seasons, David Zinman, now the BSO's music director emeritus, turned the orchestra into one of the most venturesome in the country. In terms of pure sound, it wasn't always the prettiest ensemble or the most virtuosic. But there was a flair in programming (contemporary American music featured prominently) and an enthusiasm in musicmaking that turned concerts into memorable events.
Guest conductors will lead the orchestra until Temirkanov arrives. On Thursday, Englishman Jeffrey Tate had the podium, leading the orchestra in Strauss's tone poem "Ein Heldenleben" ("A Hero's Life") and the First Piano Concerto by Brahms. Peter Serkin was the soloist in the Brahms, and it proved a curious combination. Serkin has a machine-tooled technique (with a hard, tightly wound tone), an intense and utterly focused attitude and an uncluttered, lucid picture of the score.
His take on Brahms was not grand or majestic but elegant within a classical framework. This contrasted with Tate's broadly romanticized interpretation, where one sometimes felt he over-conducted--he'd shape phrases a little too lovingly--and thus stifle spontaneity and lightness from the orchestra. Weight and depth are two different qualities, and the former does not automatically produce the latter. Still, this was a finely proportioned reading, and it was satisfying to hear two sensitive and intelligent musicians, despite their differences, play off each other.
In the Strauss, part of the program's second half, Tate showed that he's a man of fresh and subtle ideas, though because of limited rehearsal time many of them will likely come to fruition in later performances.
Tate made the tone poem's hero a stocky, robust figure. I'm not sure if he meant for the hero's companion to sound so anemic and disheveled, however, but that's the way it worked out--as portrayed by a solo violin (that of concertmaster Herbert Greenberg). And there wasn't much clarity in the fantastical battle scene. Yet the pastoral retirement images--an Alpine-invoking English horn, played by Jane Marvine--were soothing and securely placed.