It can be a fine line between energetic enthusiasm and manic excess, especially with the sonic resources of the modern orchestra brought to bear. In his guest appearance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Saturday evening in the Music Center at Strathmore, conductor Peter Oundjian seemed to aim for the former but sometimes ended up with the latter.
Starting with a Haydn symphony, No. 96 in D (“Miracle”), instead of an overture was an idea that should be encouraged. Oundjian helped create an incisive style of articulation in this charming work but often pressed his initially fast tempos even faster, causing some alignment problems across the orchestra. The cadenza of four soloists at the end of the slow movement and the oboe solo in the trio of the Menuet, with a lovely high D from the assistant principal oboist, were particularly beautiful.
With Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” in Ravel’s technicolor orchestration, Oundjian drew out every unusual sound, brisk tempo and dynamic extreme. The effect was often thrilling but by the end exhausting, not just for the listener but for some of the musicians, such as the trumpeter, worn just a little ragged in the final movement. High points were the chirping wrong-note grace notes of the woodwinds in the “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” and the deep sounds of the ox cart in “Bydlo,” more mournful than brawny.
The most memorable playing, though, was in the A-Minor oboe concerto of Ralph Vaughan Williams, with the pearl-like tone and flawless intonation of principal oboist Katherine Needleman front and center. The strings-only orchestra, often reduced from the full number of stands, was lush and refined. Needleman floated and tittered every note with confidence, down (or up) to the last one, the same high D played by her colleague in the Haydn, here in a limpid pianissimo.
Downey is a freelance writer.