Bohemian rhapsody: Dvořák Festival opens with blazing debut by violinist Jansen

Fri Jun 05, 2009 at 12:48 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Janine Jansen performed Dvořák’s Violin Concerto with Mark Elder and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Early arrivals to opening night of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Dvořák Festival could hardly have failed to note the occasion. Czech folk dancers entertained onlookers in the rotunda, and the ambassador from the Czech Republic and other dignitaries were on hand, including the composer’s great grandson and his son.

But it is the melodic, exhilarating, proudly nationalistic music of the celebrated Czech composer that is the raisin d’être for this three-week series, and, led by Sir Mark Elder, the festival got off to a rousing start Thursday night.

Dvořák wrote three concertos: an unmatched masterpiece for cello, an attractive work for violin and a decidedly awkward one for piano.

If Dvořák’s Violin Concerto is not a major work on the level of that for cello, someone forgot to tell Janine Jansen. Making her CSO debut, the statuesque Dutch violinist attacked the stormy opening bars as if it Dvořák’s concerto were a barn-burning mainstay of the fiddle repertoire. 

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Jansen has a sterling technique, yet brought a bit of grain to her timbre in the heat of the moment, making for a combustible excitement. With Elder a simpatico partner,  the violinist made the most of the bravura passages of the opening movement and the  vivacious, folk-flavored finale with its off-the-beat accents and sudden curve balls for soloist and orchestra.

Jansen was at her finest in the Adagio, playing with hushed delicacy and a subtle array of tonal shading, her exchanges with the horns and woodwinds as closely knit and communicative as chamber music. Equally virtuosic and poetic, Jansen’s impressive performance earned her an enthusiastic ovation from the CSO musicians as well as the audience.

Elder’s approach to Dvořák is lyrical and elastic yet not outrageously so, rooted in a solid, central-European sensibility. The English conductor has stated that he believes Dvořák’s sonic palette comes from the composer’s experience playing viola in orchestras, and that was reflected in Elder’s layout of the orchestra, with violins split left and right, cellos and basses inside left, violas to the right. (The risers are back, which seems to add greater presence and definition to the sections.)

Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 is arguably his finest work in the genre, and the one he toiled over most arduously. The fount of melody is as rich as ever, but there’s a lean toughness to this music, even tragedy in the outer movements; for all the dynamism, the brassy closing bars seem more grimly determined than victorious and never quite dispel a sense of psychic unease.

Elder’s direction brought out the shadows of the outer movements with taut concentration, and there was no lack of adrenaline rush in the coda. But the middle movements were most striking Thursday night. Elder’s emphatic accents in the celebrated scherzo gave an aggressive, malign edge to the lilting main theme.  The Adagio is one of Dvořák’s most indelible  movements, and unfolded with a darkly ruminative flow that seemed completely spontaneous, Elder coaxing wonderfully evocative wind playing. Balances seemed just right, with woodwinds and strings on top and brass firmly punctuating textures but never overbearing or whipped up for superficial excitement.

The Scherzo capriccioso led off the evening and demonstrated Dvořák’s ability to mine vast riches from unassuming fragments, as with the impulsive two-horn dotted opening, and calliope-like main theme. Even more than in the symphony, Elder here preferred a very flexible rubato, slowing tempos down for lyrical sections, yet maintaining forward momentum. The CSO woodwinds played gloriously in the heart-easing pastoral middle section, as they did all night.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday.; 312-294-3000.

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