The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is back. The ensemble’s 2019-20 season already looked like a small miracle, saved after a protracted labor dispute between musicians and management. Then, during the long pandemic closures, Marin Alsop resigned from the position of musical director, to be replaced by James Conlon as artistic advisor for a first period of three years.
After all this upheaval, on Saturday night the BSO took to the stage at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and live music returned in the subscription series.
This performance was originally scheduled to take place at the Music Center in Strathmore. The BSO had to move the first few weeks of its Strathmore series to the Meyerhoff, due to an ongoing labor dispute between Strathmore and Local 868 of the IAFM, the union that represents Strathmore ticket office workers. A small but stalwart crowd made their way to Charm City anyway.
Dalia Stasevska, in her debut at BSO, stepped onto the podium to open the new season. The Finnish conductor, born in Ukraine, was previously assistant conductor of Paavo Järvi at the Orchester de Paris and principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This season, she took on the post of conductor of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, with a three-season contract.
She opened the program with an intriguing new work, that of Andrea Tarrodi Wild forest, which received its world premiere in 2018 with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic.
An evocation of majestic oaks, from their extended roots to their extended branches, Wild forest slowly at first. A long line of violas and cellos arched above the distant thunder of the bass drum. Clusters of brass rose and fell from the texture. Sinuous melodies clashed softly with swaying wood lines, slightly dissonant in a manner reminiscent of Britten’s. Interludes of the sea.
Tarrodi, who has spoken publicly about his synesthesia, has worked with a wide palette of colors in a largely tonal style. Huge swells fed by vast percussions and amassed brass were sometimes reminiscent of the symphonic style of Sibelius. While the piece might be too long, Tarrodi’s variety of textures and tempo caught interest. The final section, a strange lullaby started with harp and glockenspiel, was suspended in the silence that followed.
BSO’s other debut album of the evening was American violinist Randall Goosby, typed as soloist for Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. In the opening and closing cadences of the first movement, Goosby drew a wise and honeyed tone from the Guarneri del Gesù of 1735. violin. Stasevska, who tends to get too broad and pushy with her full-swing gestures, was clearly to blame for the balance issues with the orchestra sometimes crushing Goosby.
The young violinist excelled in slow movement, his sweet and romantic rubato backed with fine restraint by the BSO. Goosby’s sound was rich in the low-pitched passages of the solo part, but gaps in intonation appeared in the tense high-pitched passages, including the many double-sets in the finale. A warm ovation deserved a fiery reminder, Louisiana Blues Strut, a stroll by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, one of the African-American composers featured on Goosby’s debut album with Decca.
Stasevska concluded this worthy program with Sibelius’ Second Symphony. His performance emphasized speed and dynamic power over subtlety, as the first and last movements moved too fast to capture many delicate details. Even so, there is no doubt that the excitement of the bubbling sounds produced by BSO, from the blazing brass to the wall of creamy violin sounds.
In this work, Stasevska conducted with absolute clarity, making the pizzicato sections of the first movement, for example, supremely unified, even at the level of a clip. As if to emphasize the individuality of the approach, Stasevska started the second movement at an icy pace. By means of a rapid accelerando, however, the movement grew in tension and excitement. Sibelius, who began the work during a stay in Italy when he was interested in both Dante and the story of Don Juan, put some of these ideas into this turbulent movement.
The third movement suited the conductor’s brash temper, leading to an explosive, quicksilver Vivacissimo, which framed the tragic slow middle section with woodwind and cello solos. Deputy Principal Flautist Christine Murphy was particularly strong, replacing the lead role (her colleague, Emily Skala, was fired from the BSO this summer due to her political social media posts).
In the final, the BSO adopted the frenzied tempo choices presented by Stasevska, like a thoroughbred happy to run free. The visceral excitement in the sound of this exultant movement was the benefit, even when the coda seemed stretched almost beyond breaking point. These potentially dizzying Sibelius swells of orchestral crescendo have rarely been so exciting.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the conductor has a personal connection with the great Finnish composer. Stasevska is married to Lauri Porra, the bassist of the Finnish power metal band Stratovarius. He is also the great-grandson of Jean Sibelius.
The program will be repeated at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. James Conlon leads the BSO in William Levi Dawson Negro folk symphony and that of Alexander von Zemlinsky Die Seejungfrau 8 p.m. on October 1 and 2. bsomusic.org