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Son to conductor Stenz: "Don't mess it up, Dad"

Sep 29, 2011, 3:37 a.m.

By Michael Roddy

COLOGNE, Germany (Reuters) - Before he went out to lead the orchestra, choirs and soloists for Mahler's gargantuan Symphony No. 8, "The Symphony of a Thousand," conductor Markus Stenz said his young son gave him a word of advice: "Don't mess it up, Dad."

In the event, Stenz, a solidly built 46-year-old who sometimes pointed with his head, almost like a soccer player -- so the children's choirs in boxes above the stage got their cues, he said -- made Mahler's most challenging symphony a spiritual and musical high point for anyone who heard it.

For two performances, on September 24 and 25, Stenz's Gurzenich Orchestra of Cologne, with nine soloists including Irish soprano Orla Boylan and German mezzo Petra Lang, shook the rafters of the sold-out Cologne Philharmonie concert hall.

The gala concert opened the orchestra's season and celebrated the 25th anniversary of the still modern-looking hall that has helped turn the center of Cologne, dominated by its famous cathedral, into an artistic wonderland. It also was a nod to Mahler having conducted the Gurzenich, which traces its roots to the 15th century, for the 1904 premiere of his Fifth Symphony, with its famously moving and cinematic adagio.

It is a heritage that Stenz, the orchestra's chief conductor since 2003 and also the city's general music director, is doing his best to make better known to people outside of Germany, many of whom have heard of the Berlin Philharmonic but may have trouble pronouncing "Gurzenich."

"This is absolutely a musical hub...One tends to think in the south of Munich, the north Hamburg and Berlin in the east but clearly the western hub of music is Cologne," Stenz told Reuters in an interview after an intense morning re-recording bits of Mahler with, once again, those massive forces, to polish it for a cycle being released on the OehmsClassics label.

And why another Mahler cycle when there already are more available than any sober collector could need, including historic recordings in decent CD transfers at dirt-cheap prices from German mail-order houses?

Stenz, who was born in a town south of Cologne, isn't out to put his personal stamp on Mahler, but sees his music as an artistic challenge that any self-respecting conductor -- especially a German one steeped in the traditions of Mahler's late romantic style -- must meet head on.

"There is always a spirit beyond the notes in any Mahler symphony and that is a huge attraction for an artist. And the other fact is Mahler's music for me has the perfect balance of complexity and emotional content, and that's something that is close to us in our time, isn't it? Complexity and emotion -- that's the reason why we can live with Mahler's music."

Not surprisingly, he thinks his orchestra, which also plays more than 150 performances a year at the nearby opera house, is well equipped to deal with music which, given Mahler's operatic roots, seeks to establish a direct, immediate rapport with the listeners -- something like an opera without the scenery.

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