It was just a little over a year ago that the young Czech pianist Lukas Vondracek was in Belgium having just emerged as the winner of the 2016 Queen Elisabeth Competition. Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 had been his showcase, and Marin Alsop, conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, had presided over the performance. At the Music Center at Strathmore on Saturday evening, with the BSO on stage, the two reprised their triumph.
The concerto is renowned for its technical challenges, but Vondracek, technique easily in hand, mined it for its expressiveness and its subtleties. His tempos had life, not just momentum, and he brought out inner voices, particularly in the first-movement cadenza and the second-movement intermezzo, with astonishing delicacy. Yes, there were moments in the first movement when he pushed the tempo, sometimes a little faster than Alsop meant to go, but there were others when understated rubatos momentarily gave a phrase a graceful lightness. Not that power and momentum were lacking. Vondracek is a big guy, and playing hunched over the keyboard, his explosiveness was impressive. Alsop, a consummate partner in all this, led the orchestra smoothly through the last movement syncopations as though she and Vondracek shared a single mind. Standing ovations are way overdone in this town, but this one was well deserved.
The first half of the program was an orchestral showcase with oboes, horns and strings in particular sharing the honors. Both Tchaikovsky's rarely played "Hamlet Fantasy Overture" and Strauss's often-played "Don Juan" let the BSO revel in what it does best — color. You could luxuriate in the warmth and voluptuousness of the low strings at the beginning of the Tchaikovsky, move provocatively to the undulating of the oboe in the Strauss and then get swept along by the music's urgency. Alsop, in her unfussy way, handles big forms with vision and incisiveness, and the orchestra responds with alacrity.