Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond

Markus Stenz leads BSO in radiant excerpts from Wagner's 'Parsifal'

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Markus Stenz, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s principal guest conductor, can be counted on to generate vivifying performances of great repertoire. He’s doing it again in his latest visit.

Given how infrequently the music of Wagner turns up in Baltimore, it is particularly gratifying to find substantive selections from the composer’s last opera, “Parsifal,” making up the second half of the program.

There are only two vocal excerpts, focusing on the character of Amfortas, the knight of the Grail who suffers from a wound that will not heal. The opera’s title character, an innocent “fool” who holds the key to making things whole again, emerges in spirit, so to speak, from the orchestral passages that make up this “Parsifal” sampling.

We get telling selections from the first and third acts, enough to provide a good sense of the score’s uncommon radiance, which is fueled by luxuriant harmonies and orchestration. And more than enough to convey the the heart and soul of the opera — an intense yearning for redemption.

On Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, this Wagnerian immersion yielded an engrossing experience, thanks to supple guidance from Stenz. He kept things flowing, without stinting on lyrical breadth. The final measures were superbly, affectingly sculpted.

The conductor drew polished and communicative playing from the BSO throughout (the opening of the Prelude could have been more finely focused). The strings sounded especially lush, the brass refulgent and balanced.

Baritone Stephen Powell sang Amfortas’ part. More power would have been welcome in a few places, more incisive phrasing in a few others, but Powell nonetheless made the woeful knight’s physical and spiritual suffering register.

If we’re lucky, the BSO will get more Wagner onto the schedule. The choices are many, the potential rewards for orchestra and audience considerable. (Topping my own wish list: a concert version of Act 2 from “Tristan und Isolde,” with Stenz conducting.)

The first half of the program focused on works inspired by Scotland. Stenz led an unhurried, atmospheric account of Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture that featured purring phrases from the woodwinds and an extra dark tone from the strings.

Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy,” a violin concerto in all but name, makes inspired use of folk songs as it puts the soloist through many a technical and interpretive challenge. Concertmaster Jonathan Carney took on those challenges in his usual intrepid form. If he lost clarity of articulation in some of the trickiest passages, he maintained vivid expressiveness throughout.

Carney enjoyed supple support from Stenz, who had the orchestra responding warmly. The prominent harp part was stylishly played by Sarah Fuller.

In remarks to the audience at the start of the evening, Stenz dedicated the performance to the memory of those lost in “the incomprehensible tragedy” of the Las Vegas shootings.

If you go

The “Parsifal” portion will be discussed and performed in a Off the Cuff concert at 7 p.m. Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. The full program repeats at 3 p.m. Sunday at Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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