The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra welcomed back a seasoned maestro and offered a dazzling debut artist Saturday at Strathmore. Hans Graf, a musician of high distinction, led the orchestra in Rachmaninoff’s dour, overstuffed Symphony No. 2 and offered a mature counterweight to violinist Ray Chen’s fripperies in the Tchaikovsky Concerto.
Graf, who was Christoph Eschenbach’s successor as music director of the Houston Symphony, appears regularly with both the BSO and the National Symphony. He is undemonstrative but is clearly on top of and inside the score, never putting a foot wrong. Although some may wish for more anguish and passion in a work like the Rachmaninoff, Graf’s “let the music speak for itself” approach pays dividends. Climaxes are graded over time — smaller ones kept in proportion — and the sense of holding something in reserve gives the sprawling piece a momentum that more emotional conductors miss.
He clearly has the respect of the players, who gave a disciplined and committed account of themselves. And there was crackling excitement on the rare occasions where Graf lit into the music, like the second movement’s fugue section or in the finale with the ominous descending scales going at different speeds.
There was certainly excitement at the conclusion of Chen’s performance. This winsome virtuoso, in his mid-20s, brought a large crowd to its feet, and the cheers would not stop until he vouchsafed an encore. He has a big, penetrating sound and complete security all over the instrument (with a killer flying staccato, as his Paganini encore demonstrated). His performing style was that of an adolescent in a particularly intense game of air hockey. But as conductor John Barbirolli once said of the legendary Jacqueline du Pre, “I love youthful excess! If a young player doesn’t have it, what are you going to pare off when they get older?” Chen has a lot to pare off and a lot to learn about respecting what a composer wrote and sculpting phrases of sustained, logical beauty, but he certainly has the gifts to become a major artist.
Battey is a freelance writer.