Symphonic Superbowl: Haydn, Mendelssohn & Janacek

Juanjo Mena conducts Julian Rachlin & the BSO
(photo: Hilary Scott)

Attending a performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in midwinter is often a truly welcome antidote to the external elements assaulting one outside Symphony Hall. This was never truer than the orchestra's most recent, memorably balanced program, with selections spanning three centuries and several mood swings. The program got off to a self-reflective start with Haydn's Symphony No. 44 in E minor (“Trauersinfone” or “Mourning Symphony”) but lightened with Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor Opus 64 especially towards its more spirited end. After the intermission, the program turned the other Czech, as it were, with two pieces composed by Leos Janacek, his operatic suite from Cunning Little Vixen and his Sinfonietta. It was a full buffet under the direction of Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena, with Lithuanian violin soloist Julian Rachlin impressively delivering the Mendelssohn, and the orchestra itself increasing in size with each piece as the afternoon program built to an extraordinary climax in the final piece by Janacek, with something for everyone.

The Haydn symphony betrayed its Sturm und Drang contemporary influences (first heard around 1771) offsetting the era's somewhat cool rationality with more expressively subjective contrasting elements, usually, as in this case, in minor key. Its contrapuntal orchestration calls for a classical treatment with its relatively modest-sized assembly of strings, two oboes, two horns and a bassoon, with a lovely solo by the principal oboist. Haydn is said to have wanted the penultimate Adagio movement to be played at his own funeral, which led to its commonly known unofficial title as his “Mourning Symphony”, though, as the program notes put it, it was really more wistful than mournful. However one sees it, its themes are fundamentally natural with considerable wit and charm, as evidenced in the contributions of both conductor and orchestra throughout this first piece of the afternoon.

Juanjo Mena conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra
(photo: Hilary Scott)

The Mendelssohn concerto for violin (first heard in 1845) demands an enhanced orchestral presence, with two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets and timpani and strings. It's generally considered one of the finest, as well as most original and pleasing concertos ever written. The composer solved some of the problems inherent in the form by first intertwining in the opening movement both orchestra and soloist, employing the composer's own cadenza, and allowing for virtually no pause for applause between movements. Rachlin was in superb form, intensely moving without the excessive gestures some violin soloists often employ; he confidently confirmed in performance the astonishing promise of his biography.

But it was in the Janacek pieces that the program delivered the goods. After the brief but pleasant suite based on his Cunning Little Vixen opera, an enjoyable if slightly bizarre hint of things to come, conductor and orchestra really came into their own with the composer's 1924 Sinfonietta. It was bombast at its most overwhelming and challenging to execute especially for the four trombones, joined by no fewer than four flutes and piccolos, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, E-flat and bass clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, fourteen trumpets, three tubas, timpani, bells, cymbals, harp and strings (and, not to worry, there won't be a quiz). The piece has roots in folk and dance music, but the size and scope of its orchestration is undeniably stirring and unforgettably moving.

There was ample impetus for a well-deserved standing ovation (too common and often undeserved these days) that continued longer than is typical, as the enraptured audience confirmed that this concert qualified as the Superbowl of the present symphonic season.

No comments:

Post a Comment