Classy music-making from Juanjo Mena, Benedetto Lupo, Baltimore Symphony

When you hear the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra play with the kind of fire it demonstrated Friday night, there's no debating that the musicians deserve the salary increases that have eluded them over the past decade because of assorted financial setbacks in the organization.

This week's news of a deficit from last season that could exceed $750,000 must have the players suspecting that raises will once again be hard to come by when another contract is negotiated next year.

With luck and fresh energy, things may well look rosier by then, but right now, the cloud over Meyerhoff Hall has to affect morale onstage. Not that it could be detected Friday.

The orchestra, led by one its favorite guest conductors, Juanjo Mena, gave a roof-rattling account of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 that ranks among the most visceral experiences I can recall in that place in some time.

The strings summoned a deep, rich tone for each lyrical theme, and proved fearless and crisp in the opening whirlwind of the finale, which Mena took at a wonderfully maniacal clip. Note too the sensitivity to dynamics from these players in the pizzicato third movement.

Lots of expressive molding came from the woodwinds, and waves of power from the brass (a few raw notes proved less problematic in such an intense performance).

Mena's role in all of this excitement was considerable. The Spanish conductor managed ...

to make an over-exposed piece sound freshly compelling, often with subtle touches of phrasing and, in the last movement, with an intriguing way of cutting out the usual breathing room before the start of the second theme.

The Tchaikovsky item was not the only memorable achievement. Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3 also delivered intense rewards.

The soloist was the excellent Benedetto Lupo, making his BSO debut. It has been a long while since I heard the Italian pianist, who took the bronze at the 1989 Van Cliburn Competition.

The qualities I admired back in the 1990s were very much in evidence Friday -- unfailing beauty of tone matched with solid technique and refined musicality.

Lupo brought clarity of articulation and piquant phrasing to the outer movements, and achieved poetic warmth in the richly atmospheric Adagio (unfortunately, members of the audience went in for a bout of competitive coughing at this point in the concerto).

Throughout, the pianist enjoyed attentive support from Mena and finely detailed playing from the BSO, which seemed to relish the piquant harmonies of this brilliantly constructed score.

The program opened with three of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances from Op. 72. There was sufficient character and rhythmic life, but also some ragged playing and thick textures. A minor disappointment, though, in an otherwise first-rate night of music-making.

Tim Smith, Baltimore Sun
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