The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s second program of its Strathmore season was narrowly-focused Thursday, with lesser works by Gershwin and Bernstein and two well-traveled masterpieces by Ravel. Music Director Marin Alsop’s fervent advocacy of Bernstein’s music is admirable on many levels, but he was at his weakest in large-scale symphonic works.
Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 “sets” a W.H. Auden poem, “Age of Anxiety,” with a typically eclectic grab-bag of influences and dramatic touches. However, it’s an uphill battle when instrumental music is based explicitly on a text that a typical concert audience does not know. This symphony is played more than Bernstein’s other two, mainly due to the theatrical interest of its virtuoso solo piano part, rendered Thursday evening by the superb French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. It is a not unpleasant thing to hear once in awhile and would make a fine movie soundtrack, but otherwise offers little nourishment.
Thibaudet then came back for Ravel’s Concerto in G, and from the perfectly balanced twittering that opens the work to the tender but understated phrasing of the adagio assai to the sparkling runs in the finale, he gave us world-class playing. It was pure pleasure hearing every musical intention executed cleanly and without fuss. The BSO took inspiration from him, offering a concentrated and colorful backdrop.
After the difficult Bernstein and the exhilarating ride of the concerto, the orchestra rendered the closing work, “Daphnis et Chloe” — a lovely chestnut — somewhat on autopilot. The harp and woodwinds were often at odds, intonation-wise, and the “Danse generale” never took wing, each beat sounding the same. Kudos to flutist Emily Skala, though, for poise and virtuosity in equal measure.
Battey is a freelance writer.