Markus Stenz, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s new principal guest conductor, worked several kinds of magic Saturday at Strathmore. It was an all-Beethoven program, so I can’t say much about his range, but I can say that he elicited playing at a level I’ve never heard from this middling-to-good group.
Everything sounded different; this German maestro uses unconventional gestures and no baton. He reseated the strings, with divided violins, cellos spread out horizontally onstage and the four basses placed antiphonally, two and two. And he forbade vibrato. In Beethoven! The result was both a cleaner and warmer blend, which somewhat ameliorated the sad fact of the shrinking numbers overall. He shapes every phrase, has an innate feel for drama and made the orchestra play more softly than I thought possible.
And Stenz achieved all of this without the BSO’s heavy hitters. In the past, I’ve observed that the group doesn’t have a deep bench in its winds or that, when assistants or other fill-ins take principal parts, the results can be unfortunate. But none of the principal winds played in the first half of the concert, yet the blend and tuning were exemplary.
The program had two welcome and fascinating rarities surrounding the familiar Piano Concerto No. 1. The “Leonore” Overture No. 2 contains all of the themes of its famous successor but is a little more discursive. The overture and incidental music to “Egmont” is not completely satisfying as standalone music (the numbers don’t add up to a satisfying whole, given the length), but it includes Beethoven’s only attempt at melodrama (narration on top of the music). Soprano Lauren Snouffer was superb in her two brief numbers; they need to get her back for something substantial. In both works, Stenz kept a tight grip, with nary a routine bar anywhere.
Pianist Lars Vogt plays a good deal of chamber music, and it showed in his intimate interactions with the musicians in the concerto, most especially in the Largo, where he seemed to be almost improvising off of the phrases from the orchestra. Elsewhere, his playing was fluent and strong, if not strikingly individual. And he selected the longest of cadenzas, which interrupts the flow of the piece too much. Still, paired with the richly detailed accompaniment, this was a fine outing.
This new appointment by the BSO was a coup; Stenz makes the orchestra play beyond itself, and future appearances should not be missed.