Mozart is getting a vigorous -- very vigorous -- workout this week from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
To open his first season as the BSO's new principal guest conductor, Markus Stenz put together a program that balances a couple of Mozart's orchestral works with a sampling of scenes from one of his greatest operas, "Don Giovanni." (The opera excerpts will be the sole focus of the "Off the Cuff" presentation Friday at Strathmore, Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.)
On Thursday at the Meyerhoff, Stenz exuded endless energy from the podium. Even in moments of lyrical reflection, he kept a sense of tension going, so that the music seemed capable of sprinting off again at any moment.
The orchestra -- reseated, in a more 18th-century-ish fashion, with first and second violins on opposite sides (pairs of basses were likewise separated) -- seemed firmly centered on the conductor's wave length the whole evening.
All of that tight focus helped to put extra snap into Mozart's Symphony No. 1, the product of an 8-year-old who would have more profound things to say a little later on. Stenz had the musicians paying keen attention to variety of dynamics, which brought considerable color and character to the phrasing (a couple smudges in articulation passed quickly).
There is no mistaking the maturity of the Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra, written when Mozart was in his early 20s. The score offers a feast of melodic invention and, in the second movement, a peak of poetic thought.
Two of the BSO's star players, associate concertmaster Madeline Adkins and principal violist Lisa Steltenpohl, took the solo parts with confidence and style. Backed solidly by Stenz and the ensemble, they zipped nimbly through the outer movements; in the Andante, their expressive tenderness and well-blended tone yielded particular pleasure.
For the "Don Giovanni" portion of the evening, the BSO engaged a stage director (Andrea Dorf McGray), put a few props onstage and brought in an accomplished cast that boasts one of today's most gifted singers, soprano Angela Meade, as Donna Anna.
The space of about an hour isn't enough to convey the full scope of the opera, but enough of the plot points emerged in this telling of the tale of the lecherous, treacherous anti-hero who ends up being dragged to hell by a statue.
Meade's account of "Non mi dir" was the high point Thursday, her rich, ample voice filling the hall with ease, her phrasing beautifully sculpted. This was vocalism that made you think of older, grander days in the opera world.
In the title role, Morgan Smith demonstrated sufficient tonal heft and stylish flair, especially in "La ci darem la mano," partnered by the bright-voiced Pureum Jo as Zerlina. Smith also did valiant work in the Champagne Aria, despite Stenz's supersonic tempo.
Thomas Richards brought lots of vocal color to the role of Leporello. Jennifer Black was the expressive Donna Elvira, Timothy Bruno the relatively imposing Commendatore.
As Don Ottavio, tenor Ti Li sounded promising, but only got to sing a few lines; I would have welcomed either of the wonderful arias Mozart wrote for the character. Peabody Institute students jumped heartily into the finale (with a bit of stage shtick).
The BSO signaled its strength at the start of the Overture and proceeded to play with admirable clarity and nuance as Stenz shaped a richly detailed, not to mention propulsive, account of the brilliant music.