As music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop’s greatest strength is not necessarily a certain swath of music from the classical and romantic core. The ensemble’s new principal guest conductor, Markus Stenz, has built a reputation in those areas. After a concert devoted to Mozart in October, Stenz led a vivid and moving account of the “German Requiem” of Johannes Brahms in the Music Center at Strathmore on Saturday evening.
This piece is driven by the chorus, which sings in all seven movements, and Stenz took advantage of the fine University of Maryland Concert Choir that he had seated above the stage. Stenz shaped each movement with consummate skill, holding back the orchestra so that the choir was front and center in the balance. This approach immediately set the tone in the first movement, with its dark-hued, violin-free orchestration. Rarely has the weight of each word in this piece come across so distinctly.
The limpid, almost vibrato-free sound of this soprano section, as opposed to the warbling sometimes heard from an older volunteer chorus, was balanced by an occasionally rushed and imprecise greenness in the male parts. Bass-baritone Eric Owens had prophetic force but did not bellow in his solos, while soprano Lisette Oropesa was clean in tone in the fifth movement but not laser-focused in a way that could pierce through.
As an introduction, Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 was a misfire. Stenz’s interpretation was somewhere between historically informed and conventional. A violin-heavy instrumentation covered the more-interesting contributions, such as the continuo fill of the harpsichord, placed at the back of the ensemble like an afterthought. The musicians seemed more uncertain about Stenz’s beat here, leading to some misalignment. The effect was best calibrated in the Air movement, with the Bourrée and Gigue movements sounding more like big-boned symphonic pieces.
Downey is a freelance writer.