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

Baltimore Symphony in colorful form with Stenz, Steinbacher

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The tight chemistry between the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor Markus Stenz has been easy to hear since he took up the post in 2015 with a three-year contract. This week, that contract was extended until June 2019. Do I hear 2020?

On Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Stenz got things started engagingly with a robust account of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1. Subtle details of tempo and phrasing kept everything sounding spontaneous, aided at each turn by the BSO’s supple response.

There was much to admire at the end of the program, too, as the orchestra poured on the lush tone and vibrant character in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. Here, Stenz allowed the poetic passages plenty of room to flower, while maintaining a firm sense of momentum. A classy, rousing performance.

In between came Korngold’s gorgeous Violin Concerto, crafted, like the Rachmaninoff work, in the 1940s and full of brilliantly orchestrated, late-Romantic lyricism.

As was the case when the concerto was new, you can still encounter elitists who get a smelling-cauliflower look on their faces whenever the piece is even mentioned. They can’t abide its unabashed tunefulness, which Korngold largely derived from his own film scores. Such people will probably never be won over. Their loss.

The rest of us are happy to surrender to this tender and soaring music, especially when it’s in the hands of Korngold champions as effective as Stenz and the soloist for this program, Arabella Steinbacher. They made a fine team.

The violinist burrowed into the most exquisite melodies with a sweet, penetrating tone, creating an ethereal gleam in the first two movements, and she took the work’s hefty technical demands in stride. The conductor coaxed finely shaded, personality-rich playing from the BSO throughout.

While the winter-into-spring weather of the past several weeks could not have been much more erratic, the orchestra has maintained admirable steadiness through a variety of repertoire.

Last month, for example, I enjoyed the expressive flair the musicians brought to operetta gems with principal pops conductor Jack Everly, amiable soloists and the dynamic Baltimore Choral Arts Society.

And there was a great deal to savor from a program led by Lahav Shani, the young music director-designate of the Israel Philharmonic making his BSO debut.

His approach to Schubert’s Ninth Symphony was so natural in phrasing, so nuanced in tempo that he made you forget the work’s famous long-windedness. And the seemingly effortless way he communicated to the orchestra (often without any conducting motions at all) yielded playing of remarkable sureness and eloquence.

Also making a memorable BSO debut on that program was pianist Nikolai Lugansky, who tore through Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2 with no end of technique and style.

The Beethoven-Korngold-Rachmaninoff program repeats 8 p.m. Saturday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff Hall. Call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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