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

BSO and principal guest conductor Markus Stenz still hitting it off

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

When German conductor Markus Stenz made his debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2012, there was no mistaking the chemistry. BSO management soon signed him up as principal guest conductor for a three-year stint starting in 2015.

“The contract has just been extended by a year, which I think is absolutely great,” says Stenz, who wraps up his third year with the BSO this weekend. “The extension felt natural.”

Music-making with the orchestra feels natural, too.

“The overriding impression I have is that we hit it off right away and have been developing from there,” says the 53-year-old conductor. “Sometimes you end up with a honeymoon situation with an orchestra and then the work gets more tedious.”

Audiences over the past three seasons haven’t heard any tedium from Stenz and the BSO. A couple of weekends ago, for example, he drew taut, fresh playing in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, as well as a lush, vibrant response in music of Korngold and Rachmaninoff.

“I feel I can find ever more fascinating corners of refinement, fine-tuning and spontaneity with the musicians,” Stenz says. “And spontaneity is only possible when there’s an amount of trust that exceeds the ordinary. I can even change things a little on the spot in a concert. It is a rarity for orchestras to be flexible enough to allow that.”

That flexibility should be on display again April 19 at the Music Center at Strathmore, April 20 and 21 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

On the first half of the program, Stenz conducts Beethoven’s Triple Concerto featuring as soloists two BSO members — concertmaster Jonathan Carney and principal cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski — and guest pianist Ryo Yanagitani. Then the conductor turns to Mahler’s colorful, dramatic Symphony No. 1.

In choosing his BSO programs this season, “I think I’ve been rather cunning in showcasing all the creativity in the orchestra,” Stenz says.

That goes for next season, too, when his three programs will cover a broad range of repertoire, including works by Mozart, Haydn, Wagner, Brahms, Sibelius, Chabrier, Khachaturian and Schoenberg.

The 2018-2019 season will also find Stenz continuing his tenure as chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor-in-residence of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra.

He is particularly enthused about conducting the November premiere of “Fin de Partie,” a long-anticipated opera based on Samuel Beckett’s “End Game” by Gyorgy Kurtag — “The greatest living composer,” Stenz says — at Milan’s famed La Scala.

In addition to the BSO, Stenz is a guest on the podium of several American ensembles each year, among them the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, which he revisited last fall. It was with the Missourians that Stenz experienced something in 2014.

Just as he was about to commence a performance of Brahms’ “German Requiem,” protesters began to unfurl banners and sing “Which Side Are You On?” — a demonstration against the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. A YouTube clip of the event has had almost 850,000 views.

“The [protesters] didn’t come across as aggressive,” Stenz says. “They made their point at probably the pinnacle of emotions without provoking antagonism. I was impressed with the peacefulness of it all. I just wish they had stayed for the Brahms Requiem, which is such a universal statement about loss and healing.”

Stenz started as BSO principal guest conductor the same year another controversial death, that of Freddie Gray, occurred in Baltimore. Although only an annual visitor, Stenz has followed this city’s struggles with interest.

“Baltimore might have some dodgy corners or some things you don’t want to explore, but there is a buzz here,” the conductor says. “At its core, the city’s values are intact. Count me in as an idealist and an optimist. Wherever I go, I tend to see the best in places. I’m born that way. It’s something that drives my family crazy sometimes.”


If you go

Markus Stenz conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a program of Beethoven and Mahler at 8 p.m. April 19 at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; April 20 and 21 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $10 to $99. Call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org.


tim.smith@baltsun.com

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