Could it have been even better?
But what matters most is that the BSO successfully re-established contact with a European public that had not encountered the orchestra since 1987. And, as BSO president John Gidwitz pointed out on the eve of the trip, great orchestras tour; it's one of the things they have to do to claim and maintain their eminence.
No matter how wonderfully an orchestra may play in its home town, it's important to prove that it can play just as well on the road, in front of audiences that have no built-in loyalties or sympathies.
Reviews count, too, even if the pronouncements are not always favorable (or fair). Invariably, the press carries weight, especially with concert presenters who will have to decide about bringing a visiting orchestra back again.
What people heard from Scotland to Austria was a solid American ensemble. The reviewer of London's Sunday Telegraph would rank it right alongside Cleveland, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York; a notice from Stuttgart also declared that the Baltimore musicians have "played their way up into the ranks of that creme de la creme."
But there were dissenting voices, including a Viennese critic. Baltimore's harbor, he wrote, is "among the most important in the United States. The same cannot be said ... of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra." A Berlin colleague agreed: "To be sure, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is not in the luxury class of American musical ensembles."
It's interesting to note other contradictions among the various reviews. One British critic declared that the BSO has "a smooth, well-integrated corporate sound"; another British critic noted an "individual sound - not at all the 'streamlined,' anonymous sound that used to be associated with American orchestras." Go figure.
There were differing opinions about music director Yuri Temirkanov as well. Praise was usually offered for his handling of French works, but when it came to the German repertoire, sniping was common. "The musicians would have responded to more searching interpretive ideas," England's Daily Telegraph said of a Brahms performance, "if they had been presented with them."
The conductor's decision to perform a Beethoven symphony with a full, Mahler-sized string section drew fire in Germany (a leaner approach has been favored in many corners for the past two decades or so); his phrasing of Brahms was considered dull by several writers.
None of this is surprising. Music is in the ear of the beholder. Total agreement on any artistic matter is virtually impossible. But all of the negative words generated during the tour add up to but a fraction of the positive ones, particularly with regard to the basic quality of the BSO.
Temirkanov was understandably concerned about playing Beethoven in Berlin and Brahms in Vienna - "very dangerous," he said. But his orchestra never let him down. Even taking into account a few persistent weak spots in the ensemble, the playing always had integrity and character.
In the area of programming, some of Temirkanov's ideas look less wise than perhaps they did earlier. A British reviewer put it well: "Whoever drew up the orchestra's current European tour schedules should perhaps have realized that a program of three works by Brahms is not exactly at the cutting edge of originality."
Programs that allowed other composers besides Brahms seemed to come off better with musicians and audiences alike.
Audiences grow cold