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Music review: Guest BSO conductor Carlos Kalmar provides expert leadership

May 27, 2013

by Charles T. Downey

In the battle of the area’s major orchestras, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra often outplays the National Symphony Orchestra, section for section. In the past few years, however, the BSO’s programming and leadership at the podium have sometimes been disappointing. When given a strong conductor and some meaty music to play, as it had on Saturday night in the Music Center at Strathmore, the orchestra can be a wondrous thing to hear, especially since both its regular venues have superior acoustics.

The leadership last week came from guest conductor Carlos Kalmar, a biennial visitor to Baltimore who has distinguished himself in recent years as the music director of the Oregon Symphony. He led an incendiary performance of music from Prokofiev’s two “Romeo and Juliet” suites, which featured superlative playing from all quarters of the orchestra. The strings — solos and orchestra-wide — glowed radiantly in the music for the pas de deux; the brass crushed the dissonant massed chords of the “Montagues and Capulets”; and the woodwinds were in flawless tone color and intonation throughout. Kalmar’s super-fast tempos were met expertly by the ensemble in the gossamer “Madrigal” and the sinister music for “Tybalt’s Death.”

“Phenomenon” was an attention-grabbing concert opener by Narong Prangcharoen, with blasts of brass and clangs of metallic percussion. The Thai composer, now based in Kansas City, Mo., has had a couple of pieces performed by the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra in recent years, and he brings a whole grab bag of cinematic effects to his scores. It was paired with an equally evocative piece by Saint-Saëns — the less-played third piano concerto — with French pianist Jean-Philippe Collard returning as soloist with the BSO for the first time in a decade. The piece requires real fireworks at the keyboard, which Collard seemed to have only at the edge of control at times.