Just a hint of the breadth of Abrams' wide musical range was offered by an encore he played with guest soloist Yuja Wang on Aug. 9: Schubert's "Marche Militaire" for piano four-hands. Abrams also plays clarinet and composes, but of course the flagship of his fleet of musical skills is conducting.
Taking the most substantial works first: Bartok's "Concerto for Orchestra" showed Abrams to be a master of tempo and textural detail. The two movements that flank the central "Elegia" were showcase displays of his high degree of comfort with flexible pacing and mercurial orchestration. The droll "Intermezzo interrotto" contrasted deliberate schmaltz and uproarious nose-thumbing well, just as smoothly as the more schematic "game of pairs" had unfolded two movements earlier. And the gathering and subsiding of forces at three points in the finale had every sign of being well-prepared in addition to sounding spontaneous.
In the Aug. 10 concert, the masterpiece was Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 in D minor, notable in this performance for the high spirits of the Allegretto and the triumphalism of the finale. In both cases, however, those dominant moods were sensibly undercut with a level of questioning and irony that has always been part of this composition's legacy. What Soviet apparatchiks heard as victory "because of" the system can also be read as victory "in spite of" the system — and Abrams was properly having it both ways.
As for the guest soloists, keen rapport with Augustin Hadelich in Stravinsky's Violin Concerto made for a gratifying performance throughout. The oddly deployed orchestra (lots of wind instruments sparingly, but pointedly, used) was in fine fettle, and Hadelich exploited without reserve both the 18th-century-inspired virtuosity and the cool, patrician lyricism of the score. [Hadelich won the gold medal at the 2006 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.]
In Gershwin's Concerto in F, on the other hand, Abrams demonstrated his understanding of the governing idiom (especially in the long tutti introduction to the second movement) in ways that weren't within pianist Yuja Wang's grasp. Her initial solo statement had an Old World cast that didn't come close to capturing the peculiarly American sort of yearning — the restless rumination — that Gershwin was a master of. Later on, her rhythmic elan was incisive enough to get near the Gershwin spirit, though it remained somewhat sober-sided and unyielding.
A brisk curtain-raiser opened each concert: John Adams' "Lollapalooza" spilled forth like a host of circus clowns from a tiny car, ending with Haydnesque wit (brief, unexpected silences taken in tempo). On Aug. 10, Glinka's Overture to "Ruslan and Ludmila" had the virtue of being judiciously paced while not missing anything in the way of its usual bustle.