The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra opened its new season at Strathmore with a “sampler” concert on Wednesday. The house was almost full, and the audience was enthusiastic. This augured well for the group, which (like many others) has struggled of late. One of the ways the orchestra has cut costs is through attrition. For winds, brass and percussion, necessary parts can be covered by subs, but the string sections simply shrink. For its marquee opener, the BSO fielded only six basses and eight cellos — essentially a good-size opera orchestra.
In large-scale symphonic works like Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” or the Tchaikovsky “Pathetique” Symphony, the lack of heft in the strings becomes a real liability. The winds, brass and percussion are a fixed quantity for each piece and cannot be downsized; but the composers, particularly the late romantics, conceived of a fair fight, with string sections of sufficient numbers to oppose the others. Time and again, Wednesday’s concert demonstrated (negatively) how important this balance was.
In the short run, of course, this can be addressed as a conducting problem; whoever is on the podium simply has to work harder to rebuild balances with his or her unbalanced forces. Guest conductor Andrew Constantine showed little ability in this regard, though I wonder if he was given sufficient rehearsal time. The most exposed virtuoso works — the “Pathetique” march and the Mendelssohn “Midsummer Night’s Dream” scherzo — were scrappy and unsteady, and Constantine was behind soloist Jonathan Carney in both the opening and closing sections of the Saint-Saens B minor Concerto.
By themselves, the strings were expressive and shining in the Barber “Adagio,” helped by the Leopold Stokowski trick of free bowing within each section. And in the evening’s last work — the third of Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” — the BSO displayed wonderful color and concentration. Let us all hope that finances improve to where this worthy group can return to full strength.
Battey is a freelance writer.