Swiss conductor Mario Venzago has been a regular guest of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for 20 years, and its concert Saturday at Strathmore was full of affection and camaraderie. Venzago, in his late 60s, is an elfin, spirited presence who conducts like a kid in a candy shop, darting this way and that, always finding something more interesting around the corner. Although this can be tiring after a while to those of us who admire music’s architecture and broader outlines, the energy is admirable.
Since I so regularly complain about conductors who permit the brass to overplay, let me praise Venzago in this regard: In Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony and Strauss’s “Don Juan” — both notorious black holes for the strings because of the heavy brass component — he maintained balances admirably, certainly far better than the BSO’s music director does. And the orchestra played well overall; Venzago’s continual stream of (sometimes odd) ideas about pacing and melodic shaping might have thrown the orchestra in less-familiar repertoire, but in these standards (plus Debussy’s “La Mer”), the players went on his journey with goodwill, and mostly solid playing.
The exception would be the woodwinds in the Schubert, a different lineup than in the rest of the program, who struggled to play in tune with one another throughout the first movement. Things improved somewhat in the Andante, but this outing fell below professional standards.
The evening’s soloist, Swiss pianist Oliver Schnyder, took a risk that paid off handsomely. This was his BSO debut, and rather than perform some big romantic showpiece, he chose the Haydn Concerto in D (H. XVIII: 11), a work that I’d previously heard in performance only from children, some quite young. But Schnyder (in his 40s and well into an international career) showed that real artistry can be applied to technically simple music just as well as in knuckle-busters. His phrasing and touch in the Un poco adagio opened up worlds of expression, and his bumptious, off-kilter accents in the Hungarian-themed Rondo never disturbed the flowing, propulsive stream of notes. When was the last time you saw a standing ovation for a Haydn concerto?
Battey is a freelance writer.