NSO guest conductor Marek Janowski breathes new life into old program

Marek Janowski
Washington Post

This week’s National Symphony Orchestra program didn’t set my pulse racing when I saw it last year — three overplayed works from the mid-19th-century German canon — but the lack of breadth was more than compensated for by the urgent, variegated interpretations of guest conductor Marek Janowski.

He blew the dust off everything, making the NSO musicians sit up and take notice. While not wholly successful, last evening’s performance at the Kennedy Center unfolded with an engros­sing what’s­going-to-happen-next vibe, which I didn’t think was possible in such familiar repertoire.

In Weber’s Euryanthe Overture, Janowski, a veteran opera conductor, gave an object lesson in storytelling as music-making. He infused solid orchestra leadership with an in-depth knowledge of the opera’s plot. This double layer of control made the ghost scene shiver marvelously and the triumphal march strut with extra pomp. Though the NSO hadn’t done it in a long time, the piece felt both alive and lived-in.

Violinist Stefan Jackiw, making his NSO debut, is in his early 30s but looks half that. A lithe, charismatic player, he seemed to be fencing with the Bruch Concerto rather than caressing it, every non-lyrical gesture a slashing one. To be sure, there was much gentle and imaginative playing in the Adagio, the tone whispering, keening and sometimes singing, but in the virtuoso passages elsewhere, he seemed to be mainly about speed. Though his bow arm produced lines of immaculate purity, his vibrato doesn’t grow organically out of the sound — it’s applied, like makeup, but here with spots missing. Janowski’s long experience in accompanying singers made for a very satisfying collaboration. I’ve rarely heard the NSO match a soloist so well, both in ensemble and balance.
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