Janowski leads CSO in a program of opera without words

Fri Jun 01, 2018 at 1:24 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Marek Janowski conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Wagner, Beethoven and Weber Thursday night. Photo: Felix Broede

Orchestral programs offering music from great operas seem to have gone the way of civil political discourse and safe streets in downtown Chicago.

Yes, the obligatory overture still pops up regularly. But programs devoted to opera excerpts sans singers seem to be regarded, unfairly, as the quaint vestige of a less-enlightened era.

In his belated downtown debut Thursday night, Marek Janowski led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program that was largely focused on the world of opera.

Born in Poland and long active in Germany, Janowski, 79, is a theater veteran with decades logged at regional and top opera houses in Europe. He is an especially well-regarded Wagnerian; his Ring cycle with the Staatskapelle Dresden was the first digital recording of Wagner’s complete tetralogy and–with a cast of leading singers of the era–that pioneering Ring holds up very well today.

The evening opened with the Overture to Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Euryanthe, and Janowski and the CSO made a mini-tone poem out of this curtain-raiser. The conductor brought crackling theatricality to the whirling opening theme, led a wonderfully silken easing into the second-theme aria and explored a strange and unsettling fragility in the ghostly music. The reprise of the main theme went with all due brilliance but was kept in opera-house scale.

Of course, operatic music was meant to be heard in the theater. But when the music is as magnificent as that of Wagner, why should it be heard only every 15 years or so when a new production is presented on stage?

Janowski led an Overture to Tannhäuser that was strongly projected yet refreshingly free of bombast, with an unforced nobility in the majestic main theme. In these performances, the condcutor is dispensing with the overture’s concert ending and instead segueing directly into the Venusberg music that opens the opera (written by Wagner for the opera’s retooled Paris premiere). If Janowski’s no-nonsense direction didn’t exactly conjure up much sensuality in the scene’s frolicking nymphs and sirens, his steady pulse drew one into the unfolding drama so surely, it was almost a disappointment to have the excerpt end.

In music from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Janowski flipped the order of the Preludes to Acts 1 and 3 for a more effective concert sequence. The latter was especially well done, with the orchestra bringing a searching strain of melancholy eloquence to Hans Sachs’ introspection. Janowski unleashed the full brilliance of the opening Act I Prelude to make a suitably rousing closer with nicely gamboling winds in the middle section.

The evening’s non-operatic outlier was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4.

Janowski led a lively, focused performance that had a natural authority and unfussy rightness to the music-making. As in the best Beethoven performances, one was made aware of the craft and originality of the music and not the idiosyncrasies of the performance. Nothing was overdone or self-regarding, and there was a Central European warmth and integrity that was very appealing.

The first movement Allegro was vital and spirited, with just the right touch of Beethoven’s aggressive energy without losing an essential geniality. Janowski took the Adagio at a flowing tempo, charting the ebb and flow alertly. The finale was exciting, less for speed or volume than for textural clarity and transparency–Janowski let the strings’ vivid contrapuntal exchanges emerge clearly and consistently brought the winds forward to striking effect.

Apart from a jarring ensemble lapse from the second violins in the opening movement, the playing was excellent throughout. John Bruce Yeh’s burbling clarinet took full advantage of Janowski’s balancing opportunities.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Janowski leads CSO in a program of opera without words”

  1. Posted Jun 01, 2018 at 4:46 pm by James M. Edwards

    Caught the friday afternoon performance lead by janowski and found his Wagner to be emotionless and almost sissyfied with no drive or real passion. It did not seem like Wagner. Janowski may ofter a different Wagner but not one that offers old fashion rip-snorting emotions. He sucked the glory oUT of the music.

  2. Posted Jun 01, 2018 at 8:38 pm by Peter-DG

    I was also at the Friday matinee and found Wagner’s music missing the CSO brass bombast one almost expects to hear. And incidentally also missing Gingrich. But the playing bought out a sublime musical interpretation of the plight of the pilgrims and then the ruminations of Hans Sacks. It was a thoughtful and inspiring Wagner.

    And I think the second violins got the Beethoven opening right this time.

    Also impressive was the audience. I avoid the afternoon CSO performances because the public tends to be too noisy for my comfort zone. But not today. There was not a single extraneous sound to be heard. Everyone seemed to be focused on the fabulous playing.

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