The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s second concert of its season at Strathmore on Saturday evening was a little musty, programming-wise, but it was redeemed by the confident, open-hearted work of Spanish guest conductor Juanjo Mena.
Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony is a lovely work, but this was at least the third time since the Music Center at Strathmore opened in 2005 that I have heard it performed by the BSO, the last time just a year ago. The canon is fine, but it is the job of a major orchestra to expand and develop the repertoire, not just toggle between world premieres and chestnuts. The opener, Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, was similarly too familiar. The Alexander Glazunov Violin Concerto is a rarity, but its conservative, musically inert rhetoric hardly enlivened the evening.
Repertoire choices aside, it was a pretty good concert. Mena, principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic and a regular guest conductor of all the top U.S. orchestras, projects quiet authority, with little posturing and clear anticipatory gestures for the musicians. He balanced the orchestra well, with the strings always audible, and he helped the BSO achieve some wonderful soft playing that still maintained intensity and flow.
In the first two movements of the Beethoven, he elicited clear detail from the woodwinds at the same time he emphasized the longest musical lines. My one cavil would be that his tempi tend to be conservative; the Allegro con Brio of the Prokofiev and the Beethoven Scherzo both felt a little earthbound. But overall, this was world-class conducting. I hope to hear it in other repertoire someday soon.
Jonathan Carney, the BSO’s indefatigable concertmaster, is unique among his peers. Whenever he does a concerto, he comes back and plays the rest of the program from his normal chair; I know of no other concertmaster who does that as standard practice. It is a testament to his stamina and his loyalty to the orchestra. In the Glazunov, while his lyrical playing was eloquent, in virtuoso passages it was not always in tune or well-articulated. But it was a fully professional outing, and he is an undeniable asset.
Battey is a freelance writer.