Musical life in the nation's capital is about to become a lot more interesting. As of February -- when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra moves into the new Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda -- this will be the only metropolitan area in the country to have two full-time, full-size and top-class symphony orchestras offering dueling programs every week.
For the moment, you have to make the trip to Meyerhoff Hall in downtown Baltimore to hear Washington's "new" orchestra. In three months, that will no longer be an issue -- make your way to the Red Line's Grosvenor Station and you'll be within walking distance of Strathmore. Right now, however, the Baltimore Symphony is playing an all-Brahms program that ought to inspire some curious listeners to make the pilgrimage to Meyerhoff.
Garrick Ohlsson is one of the very few artists who can play the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat (Op. 83) and make it sound -- well, not easy exactly, but at least like something that doesn't secretly require the services of an invisible third hand. No pianist now before the public plays with such vast reserves of strength and grandeur; I haven't heard such a gigantic sound emerge from a piano since the heyday of Alexis Weissenberg. Unlike Weissenberg, however, Ohlsson never bangs; if his tone is sometimes stentorian, it is never harsh, and from the first note, he ruled this kingly score.
This was Thomas Dausgaard's Baltimore Symphony debut, and he made an arresting impression with his energetic podium manner, emotional urgency and extremely flexible tempos. I have never heard the opening of the concerto played so slowly, and Dausgaard brought a near-minimalist sense of stasis to the great Andante (which was introduced by a prayerful and magnificent solo from first cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn). But these risks paid off: The shape of the music was never lost, the orchestra played with its customary eager tenderness, and one listened to the score with refreshed sensibilities.
The second half of the program was devoted to Arnold Schoenberg's orchestration of Brahms's Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor (Op. 25). It sometimes surprises people to learn that Schoenberg -- so often vilified as a creepy-crawly hyper-modernist who "ruined" music -- was devoted to the works of Brahms. (He was almost as passionate in his affection for Strauss waltzes.) But then again Schoenberg was a most reluctant revolutionary -- he called himself a conservative who was "forced to become a radical" because he found nothing original left in tonal music.
Setting aside the question of whether Schoenberg was "right" in his conclusions about tonality (and the evidence would seem to be running against him), he knew and revered his Brahms. Indeed, Schoenberg prided himself on his decision, in creating this arrangement for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1938, to "remain strictly in the style of Brahms and not to go further than he himself would have gone if he lived today." And so, although there are some oddities in the orchestration -- cymbals, triangles and other sore thumbs -- the results are generally plump and comfortable and as respectful as one might wish.
The program will be repeated tomorrow afternoon at 3. Information: 410-783-8000 or www.baltimoresymphony.org.