Next month, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra marks the 100th anniversary of its first public concert. This season and last, music director Marin Alsop has given both her programming and her musicians an energy-boosting shake-up. That happy trend continued Thursday night with the BSO’s concert in the Music Center at Strathmore, anchored on a recent work by Baltimore-born composer Christopher Rouse.
The Minnesota Orchestra gave the world premiere of Rouse’s “Oboe Concerto” in 2005. The BSO’s outstanding principal oboist, Katherine Needleman, advocated for its BSO debut after playing it at the Peabody Conservatory. It is a fascinating work that returns again and again to rhapsodic slow sections bursting with exotic colors, including solo trills on the same note, alternating between the oboe’s regular and harmonic fingerings. In these passages, harp, celesta and silvery alto flute provided a halo for Needleman’s hypnotic sound on the solo part. Alsop kept the orchestra reined in during the fast outbursts, which were less memorable but exciting.
That sense of containment meant that the chance for the musicians to open the throttle a bit in the other pieces was welcome. In the fun “Academic Festival Overture” of Brahms, the orchestra dug into the raucous quotations of drinking songs the composer had picked up in his own brief student days. Alsop offered no new ideas in Beethoven’s Third Symphony (“Eroica”), with tempos that seemed to vary from moment to moment, heard most blatantly at the repeat of the first movement’s exposition.
The horn section stood out for its heraldic contributions in the scherzo, as well as in the Brahms. Alsop is experimenting with new seating arrangements for the orchestra, here splitting the violin sections on opposite sides and moving the basses into a single row at the center back. These changes had an unsettling effect on the group’s ensemble unity, but the chance to hear each other in different ways may have long-term benefits for the orchestra.