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Galvanizing German conductor Markus Stenz returns to the BSO

Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, nicknamed "Eroica," turns up with regularity on any orchestra's playlist. So its inclusion on a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program in October 2012 suggested business as usual.

The result proved anything but usual, thanks to the presence of German conductor Markus Stenz on the podium.

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Sparks flew on the stage as he led the players through a performance that combined historically informed practices — minimal vibrato from the strings, snappy tempos — and striking ideas about dynamics and pacing to deliver an ear-opening experience.

Stenz returns next week for an all-German program, and with a title: principal guest conductor-designate. The "designate" part comes off in October, when he officially begins a three-year tenure that will have him leading three weeks each season.

"I have such incredibly fond memories of my debut with the orchestra," Stenz says in flawless English with a trace of British accent. "It has refinement, subtlety and energy in a perfect mix. And I felt an immediate connection with the audience."

The orchestra has not had a principal guest conductor for a long time. The closest position was that of resident conductor, held by Christopher Seaman for a little more than a decade starting in the late 1980s.

"It's nice to get a familiar face more than once every few years," says BSO associate concertmaster Madeline Adkins. "Having [Stenz] as principal guest conductor gives us a good chance to foster a relationship with him. We were quite taken with him from the start. We felt a chemistry right away."

Adkins was concertmaster for that 2012 "Eroica" performance, which found many of the players applauding Stenz as heartily as the public afterward.

"It was fantastic," the violinist says. "Even though we were using almost no vibrato, he got from us an amazing palette of beautiful colors. It was great for us to find that much expression just with the bow."

The 50-year-old Stenz has been pursuing expressive possibilities in a career that has included a broad variety of musical jobs. He's principal conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, and former general music director of the City of Cologne, where he and his family still live.

He recently finished a tenure as principal guest conductor of the Halle Orchestra in England. Previous posts include artistic director and chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He has had guest conducting engagements with many major orchestras and opera houses in Europe and the United States.

Born in the town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler in Germany, Stenz was exposed to music early.

"My father was a music teacher, my mother an amateur chorister," he says. "I was lured into thinking that music was a good thing."

Although also interested in jazz — "I have a passionate love affair with big band music," he says, "and I loved the Mel Lewis Orchestra" — Stenz settled on classical and studied at the College of Music in Cologne. Orchestral conducting became his focus.

"I love the idea of many people being involved in music-making," he says.

One of his earliest influences came courtesy of German television, which broadcast Leonard Bernstein's celebrated 1973 lecture series at Harvard University, "The Unanswered Question."

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"It was for me a life-changing experience," Stenz says. "It was wonderful just to hear the voice of that man. Imagine my heartbeat when I finally got to meet him."

That meeting was at Tanglewood, the music center in western Massachusetts where the Boston Symphony makes it summer home and where various educational activities take place. Stenz was among a group of young conductors chosen to study with Bernstein in the summer of 1988. Marin Alsop, the BSO's music director, was another.

"How paradisiacal it was," Stenz says. "It was his Bernstein's 70th birthday, so there a big to-do for that, but he always had time for the students. His best advice was about broadening your horizons. Before waving your arms, he would make you think about the landscapes that might have inspired Brahms to write the second movement of his Third Symphony."

Stenz and Alsop "kept loosely in touch" after that Tanglewood summer as their careers developed. For the German conductor, one of the first career stops was the London Sinfonietta, which engaged him as principal conductor during the mid-1990s. The managing director of that ensemble at the time was Paul Meecham.

"Here we are 20 years later," says Meecham, now president and CEO of the BSO. "It's a very small world. When [Stenz] conducted here in 2012, he really galvanized everyone."

Alsop likewise admires the conductor.

"I think the world of him," Alsop says. "He's super-talented. I think he brings a depth, particularly to the German repertoire."

In addition to next week, when music by Weber, Schumann and Strauss is on the bill, Stenz will keep the focus on music by his countrymen during his first full year as principal guest conductor next season — works by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms will be featured in his concerts.

"This is just the way the programming fell into place," Meecham says. "I expect him to expand after that. But he does bring a certain German sensibility that is innate."

If it looks like a bit of typecasting, Stenz doesn't mind.

"As a chief conductor, I would invite guest conductors to bring their best, the pieces they feel a very strong bond with," he says. "I think that is what will be the case in Baltimore."

Stenz considers next week's BSO program a celebration of what he calls "ideas music."

If some of the ideas in Schumann's Symphony No. 2 are "clumsy" in terms of orchestration, "as an interpreter you have to find your way around some corners," Stenz says. "But what is revealed behind them can be profound."

And in the "Four Last Songs" by Strauss, which will be sung by the exceptional soprano Heidi Melton, "you hear [Strauss] committing to the text with all his wisdom. There are no extraneous notes. All ideas are distilled. You get the essence of his music," the conductor says.

BSO audiences will get to experience the essence of Stenz in the years ahead, and he will get to experience more of the orchestra and its environs.

"Baltimore is such a vibrant city," the conductor says. "I feel the energy of a student community, of people interested in culture, and an orchestra firmly positioned in Baltimore's cultural scene. I feel very happy about having a regular association with the Baltimore Symphony."

If you go

The BSO, conducted by Markus Stenz, performs at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.; 8 p.m. Saturday at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets are $28-$80 at the Meyerhoff, $30-$90 at the Strathmore. Call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org.

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