A night at the symphony often — too often — involves a white-haired conductor showcasing the latest wunderkind in a splashy concerto. Saturday night at Strathmore, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra stood that formula on its head, with the talented young Czech conductor Jakub Hrusa leading a program featuring two pieces from his native land and a romantic warhorse performed by the venerable pianist Andre Watts.
Janacek’s Suite from “The Cunning Little Vixen,” which opened the concert, showcased the conductor’s strengths. Hrusa, 32, wisely chose the arrangement by Charles Mackerras, which uses the composer’s strangely original orchestration rather than the sweetened version by Vaclav Talich. Hrusa offered vivid scenic delineation in Janacek’s balletic music, with a meticulous ear for melodic detail, tonal variety and rhythmic precision.
Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony, which concluded the evening, presented a greater challenge. Hrusa delivered the outlines of a convincing interpretation with intelligently shaped movements, beautifully sculpted melodic lines and powerfully expressive climaxes. The woodwind solos of the slow movement were lovingly caressed, while the lilting dance rhythms of the scherzo took on a terrifying force by the movement’s close. Yet other stretches in Dvorak’s sprawling score sagged, with Hrusa unable to consistently sustain rhythmic tension and flow. The BSO’s obtrusive brass also threw off balances, and the orchestra’s palette of sound, section by section, tended toward the monochromatic.
The Grieg Piano Concerto inspired a mostly ponderous reading from Watts, with unusually broad tempos in the outer movements. Favoring structural clarity over dramatic sweep, Watts took his time building to thunderous climaxes and luxuriating in moonlit lyricism. Yet rather than yielding introspective insight, Watts’s muscular but measured approach felt unduly sober. Only in the majestic final bars did soloist and orchestra finally indulge in romantic fervor and virtuosic abandon. Until then, it was an overly serious performance of an old warhorse that needed to be ridden with freer rein.
Chin is a freelance writer.