Juanjo Mena leads Baltimore Symphony in colorful, off-the-beaten-path program
People are still talking about Hannu Lintu's sensational BSO debut last week, when the Finnish conductor led incendiary accounts of familiar works by Beethoven and Sibelius. This week marks the return of Juanjo Mena, one of the orchestra's favorite and most frequent collaborators since his first appearance here in 2004, and this reunion is producing memorable results, too.
The program -- three 20th century works that take distinctly different lyrical paths -- is noteworthy in itself, since none of the music is over-exposed in concert halls. On Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore (the program repeats this weekend at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall), Mena lavished care on each item, from the gentlest whisper in Ottorino Respighi's "Ancient Airs and Dances" to the most aggressive thrusts in Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 4.
The 1916 Nielsen score, which the Danish composer called "The Inextinguishable," is a knockout. The title refers
The sense of an eventful journey is palpable in the symphony, and Mena proved to be a masterful guide, maintaining taut control, yet allowing for plenty of breathing room. The BSO responded with playing of considerable vitality, character, impact. The woodwinds sounded particularly inspired.
The first half of the evening was devoted to music of a mostly delicate hue. The strings-only Suite No. 3 of the "Ancient Airs and Dances" reveal the subtlest side of Respighi. This is baroque music seen through an early 1930s gauze of romantic warmth, and Mena coaxed appropriately gorgeous -- but never sentimental -- and admirably cohesive sounds from the ensemble; pianissimo fade-outs were achieved with great sensitivity.
Given the weather we've been having lately, Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de estio (Spring Concerto) seemed a doubly fitting choice for the program. Though not as well known as his works for guitar and orchestra, this violin showpiece from 1943 is a charmer, propelled in the outer movements by brilliant, dancing flourishes for the soloist, and enriched in the central movement by a noble, elegant theme of timeless lyricism.
The solo role proved a strong fit for BSO concertmaster Jonathan Carney, who offered a combination of technical aplomb and refined style, while Mena assured smooth partnering from the orchestra in this understated gem of a concerto.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF BSO (Jonthan Carney photographed by Grant Leighton)