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Baltimore Symphony Orchestra brings force and finesse to a program of Beethoven and Wagner

Soprano Christine Goerke and bass-baritone Greer Grimsley make a return to Valhalla at BSO’s ‘Wagner Opera Spectacular’

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performs at Strathmore. (Maximilian Franz)
correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly referenced Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F Major (Op. 96). It is Op. 93. This article has been corrected.

I’d never seen soprano Christine Goerke in such a state: Her voice cracked, her nose sniffled, her face turned bright red. Just a total wreck. I should mention that this wasn’t Saturday night at Strathmore; it was Thursday afternoon on Instagram.

“It’s been three years, and I can’t stop crying. I feel so lucky,” Goerke said through tears from backstage at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore, where she and bass-baritone Greer Grimsley were in rehearsals for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s “Wagner Opera Spectacular.” “You just don’t know what you have until it’s not there.”

This is a sentiment that has attended, to some degree, every concert I’ve been to since I first started coordinating my pocket squares to my KN95s. A subtext of getting back to normal has itself become something of a new normal. And although the novelty is starting to wear thin, I have to admit, when I heard fragments of the brassy, bellowing leitmotif of “Ride of the Valkyries” leaking in through the stage doors on Goerke’s post, and again at Strathmore as the BSO limbered up, it triggered a rush of familiar Wagnerian chills.

This “Spectacular” was peculiar in its balance of weight and wit: “Ride” and the wrenching final act of “Die Walküre” were preceded by a rousing run through Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F Major (Op. 93). Led by James Conlon — music director of LA Opera and currently in Year 1 of his tenure as the BSO’s artistic adviser — the orchestra sounded full, bright, tight and (if I’m reading my notes correctly) hungry.

(To wit, this was my first experience hearing the BSO at Strathmore, one of the most acoustically rewarding spaces I’ve encountered since coming to Washington. The closeness and clarity of certain frequencies made my eyebrows jump a few times.)

Conlon conducts like a man with Beethoven encoded into his muscle memory. He led an understated dialogue with the orchestra on Saturday, tightly controlled (for the most part) and less concerned with scanning for granular nooks and crannies than with maintaining the work’s vivacity and force. After a few weeks steeped in the National Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven cycle under Gianandrea Noseda, this difference in approach was pronounced.

Happy belated: Noseda and the NSO kick off a long-delayed Beethoven cycle with a bang

A couple of performances together in Baltimore had clearly tightened some of the bolts between Conlon and the BSO. This symphony, written in 1812 (one year before Wagner was born), is often labeled “lively,” but rare is the conductor who can go beyond that and make it sound alive. Conlon is one of them.

In the first movement, the orchestra negotiated elastic tempos and effervescent buildups. In the second — a beguilingly brief allegretto scherzando that conjures a ticking clock (or, according to some lore, a device called a metronome) — they crept and pounced like a cat. In the third movement, a few iffy notes from the horns slightly dulled the polish, but were quickly buffed out by lovely work across the woodwinds. And the fourth movement, with its opening shock of C-sharp and the thrilling timbral tiptoes toward its finish, felt both celebratory and strikingly intimate: a party brimming with inside jokes.

Whatever emotions Goerke had set free on Instagram were contained in the beam of her smile as she took the stage with Grimsley on Saturday. Sitting onstage through a stirring account of “Ride of the Valkyries” — sans riding Valkyries, but fully charged nonetheless — Goerke was clearly enjoying the view on her path back to the mountaintop. (Locals may remember her last-minute fill-in for the injured Catherine Foster when the Washington National Opera staged its “Ring Cycle” in 2016.)

But as the final scene drew closer, so, too, did Brünnhilde’s fate, and Goerke slipped into character as though falling into a dream. From there, Goerke and Grimsley (a formidable Wotan, if sometimes overwhelmed by brass) summoned enough grief, wrath and fire to burn off any residual guilt I may have housed about skipping to the end to get the goods. (Feels kind of like cheating.)

In song and onstage, Goerke and Grimsley struck a swift and uncanny chemistry — their bond made present enough that you could feel it break — and I’m convinced Brünnhilde lives in Goerke’s body. Her voice didn’t just soar above the orchestra; she drew them up to meet it. And Grimsley, summoning the ring of fire to encircle his daughter, also conjured a measure of grit and grace that more Wotans could use.

It should be mentioned that it’s no small feat for an orchestra to shift from symphonic acrobatics to the demands of Wagner’s musical dramas — let alone in the span of a single evening. The BSO turned this test into a treat, the force of the first half finessed by the sensitivity of the second.

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