Markus Stenz's conducting style might be polarizing.
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On Saturday, November 18th, The San Diego Symphony performed Mozart’s Requiem. They pushed the concert hard on social media and it appears to have paid off. I was only using eyeball metrics but the house had fewer open seats than the previous week’s concert. I would call this a triumph of Facebook advertising.

The first piece on the program was Haydn’s imaginative Drumroll Symphony. It was good.

Since this is a vocal concert I'm going to be persnickety. No one else is going to do it so the task falls to me. I should mention, up front, that this was a very satisfying concert.


Markus Stenz conducts Beethoven's Ninth

Let's start with the soloists.

When it comes to Mozart it is fair to base the quality of the soloist’s voices on how appropriate they would be in a Mozart opera. I'll use The Marriage of Figaro as my measuring stick. That's more than fair.

Soprano Jessica Rivera could sing the role of Susanna at any opera house in the world. Depending of the size of the house she could sing Countessa as well. Her voice was appropriately colored and sized for Mozart’s Requiem.

Likewise, Bass Adam Lau could sing the role of Figaro at any house in the world and would be appropriate as The Count in smaller houses. When Lau began singing the Tuba mirum my heart rejoiced. The sound that poured out of his face hole was as dark and ominous as the grave, yet it remained beautiful and balanced.

Mezzo soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano could sing the role of Cherubino anywhere in the operatic universe but Donna Elvira from Don Giovanni would be a perfect fit.

These three soloists were ideal in their ability to sing Mozart. Tenor Colin Balzer was not.

I will first say that the tenor solo line in Mozart’s Requiem does the tenor no favors. The top notes are poorly conceived but this tends to be the case in almost all of Mozart’s tenor solos. The tenor role of Tamino in The Magic Flute can best be described as death by a thousand cuts.

Regarding where Mr. Balzer would fit into our cast of Figaro, he would be appropriate for the role of the aged Basilio. This is a character role which doesn’t require the vocal abilities of the other roles.

I was shocked by Balzer’s first entrance on the text “Mors stupebit et natura.” If Balzer was sick that’s one thing. If he was not sick then he was a significant disappointment.

I don’t want to dwell on this but neither can I pretend that his performance was competent. The way he approached the top notes sounded to me as though he were ailing, but let me clear —that does not excuse anything.

There are plenty of singers in Southern California who could step into the Mozart Requiem without any issues. A few years back the Master Choral director, John Russell, sang the tenor solos in a Haydn Mass for an ailing tenor soloist. The performance suffered not one bit because of it.

It’s comfortable to say, “Oh, he was sick.” It is uncomfortable to say, “If he was sick then it’s unacceptable that he went ahead and sang the concert anyway.” However, that is the fact of the matter.

But I did some YouTube research on Mr. Balzer and I would have to conclude that he is not of the same caliber as the other soloists.

The San Diego Master Chorale sounded better than they have in the recent past. The tuning was solid, and the women sounded particularly good. The vowel production, apart from the opening “Requiem” which came out as “ray” instead of “reh”, was much improved. The tenors and basses stayed in tune but there are some voices in those sections which create an other than classical vocal sound.

The sound of the male sections isn’t a pop sound or a broadway tone. It’s something towards a classical sound but at the same time it isn’t. It’s a little bit like a group of Josh Grobans singing together. That’s great for Josh Groban songs and less great for Mozart.

Overseeing the concert was conductor Markus Stenz. No one is going to confuse Stenz’s tempi with the likes of a Hans Knappertsbusch. Stenz moved the Requiem along with what I would call an energetic pace. There were a few moments when one soloist or another wasn’t coming along at the same speed but Stenz held to his tempo and the singers lined back up quickly.

This is the second time maestro Stenz has conducted the orchestra in as many seasons. Both concerts have been successful. I can see how Stenz’s conducting style might be polarizing, but I, for one, have enjoyed both his appearances. Take that for whatever it’s worth.

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