Rustic and exuberant, Janáček’s Sinfonietta soars with Mena, BSO

February 1, 2019 at 11:30 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Juanjo Mena conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night, Photo: Hilary Scott

Juanjo Mena conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Hilary Scott

Some composers have been influenced by their contemporaries in crafting a style. Others have looked to the past. Leoš Janáček sought inspiration from his homeland.

Driven by his interest in Moravian folk music and by a pan-Slavic patriotism, Janáček captured a rustic exuberance in many of his works, and nowhere does this stand out more than in his Sinfonietta.

When conductor Juanjo Mena led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the work Thursday night at Symphony Hall, the freshness and originality of Janáček’s voice was immediately apparent, even against the richly varied milieu of early-twentieth-century music.

Written in 1926, the Sinfonietta bears all the lean and prickly textures of Stravinsky’s style. But like Bartók, Janáček crafted a unique musical language from homespun influences, having etched the intricacies of Moravian music and speech into his notebooks. 

As a reflection of those elements, the melodies of the Sinfonietta are terse and the formal design is like a patchwork, each section changing direction abruptly in the course of the work’s five movements. Yet with titles such as such as “The Castle, Brno” and “The Queen’s Monastery,” the movements manage to capture an old world charm. Like a realist painter, Janáček depicted pastoral life as it was without romanticizing.

Mena, a regular BSO podium guest in recent seasons, has a fine feel for such music. Leading with crisp gestures, he conjured a colorful performance. With twenty-five players, the brasses pealed in the opening and closing fanfares. Strings answered with biting harmonies while woodwinds and basses growled in the churning accompaniment. Robert Sheena’s English horn solo flowed gracefully over glowing string passages in the third movement. Mena also wove the thorny cross rhythms of the fourth into a thick sonic tapestry, the musicians all the while handling each part with precision.

A similar rustic vitality marked Mena’s reading of the suite from Janáček’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen, heard in a arrangement by Sir Charles Mackerras.

This 2006 suite builds on conductor Václav Talich’s 1937 two-movement conception. But Mackerras—a student of Talich’s—retains the composer’s original instrumentation while expanding the musical content to an eighteen-minute length.

Here too, Janáček’s singular style is a marvel. String and wind phrases chatter furiously. Basses grind out devilish oom-pah rhythms, and waltzes drive ever forward before breaking into off-kilter polkas. Through it all, the musicians of the BSO played with the verve of a village band.

The first half of the program focused more on restraint than reverie.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor spotlighted Julian Rachlin in a performance marked by equal parts grace and zeal.

Julian Rachlin performed Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto Thursday night. Photo: Hilary Scott

Julian Rachlin performed Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto Thursday night. Photo: Hilary Scott

Throughout this most classical of romantic concertos, the Lithuanian violinist played with bright, beaming tone that had just enough weight for Mendelssohn’s soaring lines. Crafted in long arcs, his first-movement melodies unspooled into double stops and wide leaps, which he handled with aplomb. Rachlin’s cadenza also had live-wire intensity without his 1704 “ex Liebig” Stradivarius taking on any tonal roughness.

The second movement was a true “Song Without Words.” Like silver thread, Rachlin’s melody spun its way around the soft harmonies played by the orchestra. The final movement was nimble, and Rachlin built momentum to a virtuosic coda where phrases seemed to dart in every direction. Mena coaxed an accompaniment well attuned to the violinist’s lively performance. The second movement was particularly gorgeous, as the wind and string lines seemed to caress Rachlin’s every strain.

The concert’s opener, Haydn’s Symphony No. 44, proved less compelling.

Subtitled “Trauer” (Mourning), this symphony, like Mendelssohn’s concerto, walks a wire between pathos and lyricism.

Mena’s reading offered plenty of the latter but not enough of the former. Though the opening movement flowed smoothly, the music lacked requisite tension due to the conductor’s fleet tempos. The Menuetto whirled like a Scherzo, but the delicacy was ill fitting for he storm and stress that Haydn baked into the movement. Even the Adagio coursed when it should have lingered. And though the finale brought fire and fury, it failed to result in a satisfying conclusion. Even Classical-era symphonies such as this one are a process of anticipation, conflict, and resolution.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday at Symphony Hall.; 888-266-1200


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