By Ricky O’Bannon
Last weekend, Markus Stenz led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which marked his first concert with the orchestra as principal guest conductor.
The German conductor will spend three weeks with the BSO over each of the next three years in his new role. For Stenz, becoming a regular collaborator with the orchestra allows both he and the musicians a chance to better learn how each other approaches music, but he said that's a process he doesn't approach with any preconceived frameworks.
“Working with an orchestra on a regular basis doesn't mean I have a set of rules or a set of ideas,” he said. “It's so much a give and take.”
In 2012, Stenz debuted with the BSO in a performance of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, which he said got the relationship off to a great start. Stenz treated that piece with a historically informed Classical Era style — little to no vibrato in the strings, and a different approach to tempo and dynamics than the more Romantic renditions an audience might be more accustomed to hearing in the concert hall. That experience meant that when he and the orchestra got together to rehearse an all-Mozart concert in October, Stenz said very little explanation was needed about how he wanted to treat the Classical Era repertoire.
Growing up in Germany, in some ways the choice to perform Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and Brahms in his first season with the BSO seems like a natural fit. Stenz said the 2015-2016 season is featuring the music he was brought up with, but he also said he doesn’t believe that sharing geography with a given composer allows a conductor any deeper understanding of their music.
“I think we have now definitely entered the age where artists are universal,” said Stenz. “I’ve heard so many good performances in America of German repertoire. I think it's all about understanding the music and digging deep.
“I have to admit that when I read along or sing along to the German words in Ein Deutsches Requiem [Brahms' A German Requiem], the meaning of the words is so immediate to me that it inspires me during a performance. But having said that, just recently I was doing John Adams' Gospel According to the Other Mary, and it's such a present day composition — a passion for the people that live now, and it's just as immediate.”
Like many top musicians, Stenz is something of a musical omnivore. He grew up listening to big band jazz before going to school to pursue performing classical music. Stenz said parsing the chords and harmonies of jazz groups like the Mel Lewis Orchestra provided the best aural training he ever had. But beyond educating his ear, there is a philosophical approach in how jazz treats performance that he draws on.
“The idea of jazz [is that] music happens in the moment,” he said. “It’s not just like an auto-pilot ‘let’s play what we have rehearsed.’ It’s really happening in the very moment of the performance. That is a spirit I like to galvanize in classical performances as well.”
While Stenz's relationship with the BSO started in 2012, he and BSO Music Director Marin Alsop first met in the summer of 1988 when each were selected to study with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood. Stenz said Alsop volunteered to give him rides in her father’s car, which started a bond.
“Marin is an absolutely wonderful conductor, but she's also a great friend,” said Stenz. “She's authentic. She means what she says and is a real person. That's something that struck me when I met her at Tanglewood.”
That summer marked the celebration of Bernstein’s 70th birthday, which included many musicians and performances — all the kinds of “larger-than-life” experiences Stenz said that a young musician would hope to have.
“The nine weeks I got to spend there during that summer were so formative for me personally. In my my memory, I almost treat them like a moment in paradise,” he said. “There was nothing else to worry about. Everything was taken care of. It was just music and the others. It was inspirational.”