St. Petersburg Philharmonic

Russia's oldest symphony orchestra surpassed all expectations Friday evening at George Mason University's Center for the Arts. Featuring a trio of Russian-penned works, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra spilled forth music in the purest form possible -- straight from each score's soul and into the hearts of listeners.

Conducting without a baton, Artistic Director Yuri Temirkanov, who also directs the Baltimore Symphony, led the orchestra through an elegant performance of Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 in D, Op. 25 ("Classical"). Indeed, the work sounded as though it were being played by a chamber orchestra half the size of the 107-member Philharmonic.

American Lynn Harrell joined the group for Shostakovich's Concerto No. 1 in E-flat for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 107. Harrell bowed so passionately while eliciting myriad sounds from his cello that those near the stage saw a mist of rosin rising. The St. Petersburg proved a sensitive partner for the cellist, allowing him full spotlight but taking it in turn. Harrell's cadenza was especially haunting and introspective to the point of being almost improvisatory.

Captivating the ears with an exhilarating array of dynamics in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 ("Pathetique"), the Philharmonic reveled in the pathos of the composer's final symphony. Its strings presented poetically tender melodies and its brass blared with anguished intensity. The elegiac finale's pedal points resonated in the chest and when the final note decayed into an abysmal silence, the audience reverently waited before erupting with a lengthy -- and well-deserved -- ovation.

-- Grace Jean

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Shakespeare's world of fairies, kings and lovers descended upon Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Saturday, where the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, in collaboration with Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, offered an evening of music and drama based on the Bard's plays.

Under guest conductor Marin Alsop, the orchestra ran like a well-oiled machine in "Death of Tybalt" from Prokofiev's ballet "Romeo and Juliet." Depicting the play-fight gone awry between Romeo's friend Mercutio and Juliet's cousin Tybalt, the BSO sounded the 15 stabbing chords with surgical precision. Such evocative playing required no stage action and the orchestra wisely refrained from choreography.

On the other hand, a suite derived from British composer William Walton's film scores was conducive to theatrics. Music from the films "As You Like It," "Henry V" and "Hamlet" accompanied the respective soliloquies, dialogues and choruses delivered by Greg Felden, Edward Gero, Daniel Harray and Sheila Hennesey. At times the BSO projected too much over these actors, but by the time Hamlet pondered whether to be or not, they had struck a balance.

Selections from Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" brought out the best in all the performers. The BSO's enchanting overture and zephyrlike scherzo set the stage for the mischievous and humorous adventures of Titania (Hennesey), Oberon (Gero), First Fairy (Harray) and Puck (Felden). The BSO produced an especially fine, soliloquy-like nocturne and ended the concert with the wedding march, during which a flurry of confetti fell upon a surprised audience.

-- Grace Jean

Fairfax Symphony Orchestra

With Peter Serkin as soloist, conductor William Hudson led the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra Saturday night in Brahms's Second Piano Concerto. The performance, at George Mason University's Center for the Arts, was a heart-stopper that left one longing for an immediate second go-through of this Olympian work.

Serkin sounded as much in touch with the orchestra, one of our finest regional ensembles, as the players were with him, the pianist blazing through Brahms's massive technical demands with majesty and finesse. This is a paradoxical score, one moving constantly -- and at the blink of an eye -- between high drama and the most private exchanges between keyboard and orchestra. Serkin missed nothing.

From the opening Allegro's symphonic proclamations to the swirling Hungarian forces of the final Allegretto, soloist and orchestra were locked in a close-knit discourse of equals. In the Andante, cellist Marion Baker played a solo no less than enrapturing, its caressing tenderness fully met by Serkin.

The symphony also gave an engrossing account of Stravinsky's enigmatic Russian folk tale ballet "Petrouchka," bringing some splendid solos from a host of players. Yet, overall, one wished for a little more of the music's grotesquely diabolical cast and slightly tighter ensemble work -- a task demanding microsecond timing -- between orchestral sections.

-- Cecelia Porter

Marin Alsop was guest conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.Peter Serkin was piano soloist on Saturday with the Fairfax Symphony.