Here's a riddle:
What do Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture, Bruch's Scottish Fantasy for Violin, and Wagner's Parsifal have in common?
Yeah, I did too. Even after it was over I couldn't discern the link in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's "Wagner's Quest" program I recently attended at the Music Center at Strathmore. Perhaps the marketing department said "Nein!" to the program's original title, "An Evening of Original Music by Dead White German Males"?
Still, with Principal Guest Conductor Markus Stenz leading the way, the music sounded marvelous. Stenz's sense of pacing and balance brought out the best in the orchestra's string section and together with violinist Jonathan Carney (BSO's concertmaster) they almost made Bruch's shallow, folky bonbon worth hearing. I say almost because it's 2017, and surely if an orchestra is going play an entire program dedicated to the music of white German men they could have used a piece by someone still among the living to show some sort of cultural relevance or continuity to the present. And if not, then at least they could have chosen something more interesting than this piece by Bruch. Why not something by Berg? One syllable, begins with a B, much more intellectually engaging.
The draw was obviously the selections from Parsifal that filled the second half of the concert. Baritone Stephen Powell replaced the originally scheduled Alfred Walker, and made a big impression with the audience. I've only heard Powell sing smaller roles in San Francisco, with pleasing results, but this performance made it plain there's good reason he's being cast in lead roles in other parts of the country. Stenz has obviously has an affinity for Wagner's music, eliciting the best performance from this orchestra I've experienced so far.
Mendelssohn's mini tone poem got things off to a good start.
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