The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra hosted two formidable talents Saturday at Strathmore, one on the cusp of what should be an important career, the other already with 62 million clicks on YouTube. Guest conductor Joshua Weilerstein, who’s 27 but looks about 15, recently completed a three-year term as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic and now has a busy, growing career here and in Europe. He is strikingly gifted, with world-class potential.
In Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony, Weilerstein kept textures tight and vitality high. Weilerstein is a thinking musician, constantly seeking the most effective means of realizing the music, often changing the metrical units of his beat during the course of a movement. He has a variety of gestures, from standing motionless to practically dancing, but all served a technical purpose (as opposed to just pantomiming), and the orchestra fed gratefully off of his birr and precision. Indeed, the Scherzo was some of the finest playing I’ve ever heard from the BSO. In slow music, he is perhaps still figuring out the best way to channel his energy — long lines were not always apparent — but with this level of talent, I predict nothing but success going forward.
The opening work, “Prospero’s Rooms,” by former BSO composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse, was written in 2013. It is a tone poem on macabre literary themes, including Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” and its mise-en-scène encompasses feverish dancing, a chiming clock, specific colors and horror. This all helps the listener navigate music that veers among chaotic noise, ominous movie-score expressions and pan-tonal melodies. It is constructed with obvious skill, ends when it should and leaves behind motes of ideas. I would like to hear it again, although hopefully in a reading where the brass and percussion don’t regularly drown out the rest of the orchestra.
Pianist Valentina Lisitsa, who parlayed some self-produced YouTube videos into a major international career, offered Mozart’s D minor Concerto (K. 466) rather than the knuckle-busting romantic repertoire for which she is famous. It was a curious and slightly disappointing performance with moderate, almost sleepy tempos, occasional split notes and overly fussy phrasing in melodic passages. This last point came in tandem with a recently acquired affectation, appearing to mouth words as she plays, a la Glenn Gould (which you don’t see in Lisitsa’s earlier YouTube performance of the work). She passed up interesting cadenzas by Beethoven, Brahms and Busoni and chose a prosaic one by Johann Hummel — possibly because it gave her the opportunity to show off her remarkable double trills — but the audience seemed underwhelmed at the end.
Battey is a freelance writer.