Unsung Heroes of the Symphony
Among the most unsung heroes of symphony orchestras are the artistic directors who, with the participation of the music director, pick repertoire, soloists and guest conductors. The artistic director of the San Francisco Symphony, Matthew Spivey, deserves special praise for the quality of the guest conductors he is bringing to San Francisco.
Last evening, we had an absolutely splendid Brahms Fourth Symphony led by Marek Janowski, a 77-year old guest conductor active mostly in Germany. There is not a music director in this country today—including the top five—that can do Brahms better than Mr. Janowski based on his San Francisco performances.
How is it possible that such a terrific musician should be flying under the radar for so long? The Polish conductor has been leading middle-level German orchestras most of his career; he never has been music director of a top-quality orchestra, and his name on the circuit simply does not have the cachet his terrific performances warrant.
Part of the answer may lie in the exaggerated importance ‘show business’ considerations and glitz play in who gets the top conducting jobs though different orchestras do have different tastes.
Mr. Janowski is not a charismatic figure; he is ordinary in appearance, non-demonstrative and personally unassuming until he stands before the orchestra and picks up the baton. There is no showing off with the no-nonsense veteran; he just conducts the best Brahms and Beethoven you’re likely to hear anywhere on this planet. Too bad he is not on the program for next season.
What gives such power to Janowski’s interpretations I believe is his long experience in conducting opera. There was great power and explosiveness to the opening Coriolanus Overture by Beethoven as if some great dramatic event was about to take place.
The normal rhythmic incisiveness and dramatic urgency of the magnificent Brahms symphony were made even more so with this opera-symphonic conductor who knows how to bring out the tension in the score. The clearly inspired San Francisco musicians played as if their lives depended on it. Good for them--and lucky for us.
In the last few weeks we have had two great Brahms performances in San Francisco led by ‘old school’ guest conductors—an absolute gem of a Brahms 3 led by the almost-90 Herbert Blomstedt, and now a knock-your-socks-off Brahms 4 led by Marek Janowski.
I say Bravo to the artistic director for picking these old timers!
The concert’s center of attention was supposed to be the San Francisco premier of the Hindemith Violin Concerto only 77 years after its very first performance in 1940 by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. The piece had been commissioned by the celebrated Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg (famous as an early champion and friend of Gustav Mahler) and the soloist at the premier was Ferdinand Helmann, the concertmaster of the Concertgebouw.
My family feels a special connection to the Hindemith because my father-in-law, a violist in the Concertgebouworkest for 40 years, played at the premier. After World War II with the composer settled in America (though he died in Germany) and Mengelberg exiled from the Netherlands for pro-Nazi activities, the Hindemith was played quite a bit in Amsterdam.
Mengelberg, a great figure in European music before the War, was a complex and extremely controversial personality in the Netherlands--and remains so to this day.
He was a de facto Nazi collaborator for sure. But he also was an early champion and personal friend both of the Jewish-born though converted Mahler and Paul Hindemith, who was not Jewish but nonetheless despised by the Nazis and hounded out of Germany.
Perhaps because Mengelberg, more than anyone, is the person who made the Dutch orchestra great, two subsequent renowned Concertgebouw chief conductors, Bernard Haitink and Riccardo Chailly, have been working to resurrect Mengelberg’s name from the darkness that descended on it after the War.
Mengelberg, who was forbidden to conduct in the Netherlands, spent his final years in Switzerland and is buried in Lucerne.
In San Francisco, the first performance of Hindemith’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra was played by the German violinist Arabella Steinbacher who did an absolutely first-rate job with this virtuoso piece.
A number of terrific violin concertos were written during the fecund years 1935-45—Prokofiev, Berg, Barber, Bartok, Britten—and the Hindemith really isn’t the best; still, the work does contain some very beautiful music and there are extended parts that are quite moving. It has been recorded by Stern, Kavakos and Midori.
The concerto’s first part conveys a sense of urgency and foreboding that unquestionably many felt at the time because of the Nazi ascendency.
The slow movement is the best, reflecting the composer’s troubled soul and personal turmoil. The violin is alone for most of the second movement, going off into an extended introspective journey seemingly divorced from both orchestra and audience.
I found the more dynamic and vivacious third and final movement strange and less convincing.
Alas, ‘All’s not well that doesn’t end well’ especially when it comes to a violin concerto. There is good reason why the Hindemith does not get played around that often.