Baltimore Symphony gets boost from conductor James Gaffigan, pianist Christopher O'Riley
This week's BSO program marks the end of the road for the Symphony With a Twist series, a project aimed at cultivating -- what else? -- a younger audience with eclectic rep and martini bars. (Count on the bars remaining.) The series will be replaced with the Off the Cuff format introduced this season by Marin Alsop, discussion and performance packaged in 90 minutes or less.
In a quirk of programming, Thursday night's presentation at Meyerhoff wasn't officially a Twist event, despite the program book's designation as such, so there wasn't informal chit-chat from the stage (a Twist tradition), and the audience didn't get the extended section of Radiohead arrangements by guest pianist Christopher O'Riley (left) that folks will hear tonight at Strathmore and Saturday back at Meyerhoff.
Still, the evening had twist enough for me. We even we got one invigorating dash of Radiohead as an encore from O'Riley, who first delivered a striking account of Ravel's Concerto for Left Hand. To tell the truth, I had forgotten what a brilliantly crafted score this concerto is, since it has been a long time since I heard anyone bring to it so much muscle and nuance. The piece is really a drama-rich tone poem, starting with one of those sunrise-type crescendos that Ravel could produce so prismatically, this one seeming to start in some dark cave, where light hasn't penetrated for ages. Wonderful episodes of ...
O'Riley made the keyboard part sound natural and involving, while single-handedly mastering its technical challenges with remarkable ease. In his BSO debut, James Gaffigan (right), a conductor who has been creating a good deal of buzz, gave the pianist tight support and drew from the orchestra lots of stylish, powerful playing.
For his encores, O'Riley started with Debussy's Feux d'artifice, playing it with disarming bravura, and then offered his compelling version of the propulsive, rhythmically edgy Radiohead song "You."
The rest of the concert found Gaffigan and the BSO making vivid music together. Excerpts from Mozart's Idomeneo got a vigorous workout. Three Dance Episodes from Bernstein's On the Town emerged with plenty of snap and, in "Lonely Town," smoky beauty.
Particularly impressive results were achieved in selections from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. Although Gaffigan could have provided more rhythmic spaciousness in a few places, his taut grip on the music paid great dividends, and the orchestra served up impressive playing that caught the sonic richness of what remains one of Prokofiev's most inventive and emotionally powerful creations.
On a purely personal note, I hope I never again have the misfortune to sit near the ladies who were occupying V 101 and 102 Thursday night. I knew I was in trouble when, just as the house lights were lowered before the start of the concert, I overheard one of them say: "So what are we hearing tonight, anyway?" As often as they flipped noisily through the program book, chatting all the while, I suspect they never did find out.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF BALTIMORE SYMPHONY (Christoher O'Riley/Justin Brew, photographer; James Gaffigam/Terry McCarthy photographer)