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Janowski shows his skill and charm while leading BSO

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Marek Janowski, Guest Conductor.
March 21.
Messiaen, Un Sourire.
Bartok, Piano Concerto No. 1.
Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Opus 67.
March 28.
Spohr, Violin Concerto No. 8 in A minor, Opus 47.
Strauss, Metamorphosen, study for 23 solo strings.
Haydn, Symphony No. 99 in E-flat.

By Allison M. Marino

Marek Janowski, a regular conductor at Symphony Hall since 1989, led the BSO with style and finesse. His fine control of the orchestra was readily apparent, as was his comfortable approach; no musical genre fazed Janowski as he convincingly directed Classical, Romantic, and Modern works.

Composed in 1989 by Olivier Messiaen in honor of the 200th anniversary of Mozart's death in 1791, the American premiere of Un Sourire opened the BSO's March 21 performance. Despite Janowski's conducting charm, the lack of substantial thematic content in this short work could not be masked. Un Sourire is a tenuous remembrance of a side of Mozart's life in its uncertain, lonely quality, but was not remotely reminiscent of Mozart's vibrant and exceedingly clever compositional style. The audience applauded only politely.

In contrast, the Bartok Piano Concerto had a definite character -- colorful and intensely percussive. Soloist Zoltan Kocsis and the orchestra were thoroughly integrated -- the piano was primarily treated as an extension of the percussion section, not a melodic vehicle. Timpani, side drums, bass drum, and cymbals crowded the piano for center stage. The tension and energy of this rhythmic fortress hung in the air as every raised drumstick portends the impending percussive expression, adding an enjoyable visual aspect to the throbbing aural sensations. Rhythmic precision and crispness reigned throughout the concerto, even in the emotional piano sections of the adagio.

In the final piece of the evening, Janowski and the BSO distinguished their performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with intensely sensitive interpretation of the softer passages, notably the oboe solo of the first movement and almost all of the adagio second movement. Delicate, breathtaking, and exquisitely rich, the transition from the third to the final movements was not only the ultimate turning point in the symphony's development, but also the highlight of the concert. The performance accentuated the righteousness in the carved woodwork high above the orchestra bearing Beethoven's name.

Soloist and concertmaster Malcolm Lowe set the congenial atmosphere of the BSO's March 28 performance in Spohr's Violin Concerto No. 8. Louis Spohr, an early Romantic, wrote the piece for the opera-minded Italian audiences of the early 1800's, clearly mimicking operatic form with recitative and aria-like sections. Unlike the Bartok Concerto No. 1, the distinction between orchestral and solo sections was clear. Additionally, the bulk of the piece's emotional content resided in the violin, while the orchestra maintained a more Classical character. Lowe caressed his instrument through virtuosic passages, appearing casual, happy, and not the least bit self-absorbed. With Lowe and Janowski both on stage, Symphony Hall seemed more like a family gathering than an auditorium full of strangers. Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen followed the Spohr concerto, concluding the first half of the March 28 program in a melancholy mood.

Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 99 appropriately ended Janowski's guest appearance. The symphony was marked by the full orchestral sound characteristic of late Haydn, as well as by Haydn's appealing use of rhythmic motif. Janowski truly appeared in his element. Conducting never looked more like pure fun as he swayed and gestured, massaging the orchestral sound to perfection. He gave the Vivace Finale just the right light character, evoking an audible giggle in the audience and even a few smiles on stage; Haydn's musical wit underlined this delightful movement with a "fake" ending and some cute call and response sections in the woodwinds as the symphony drew to a true close.