When the Symphony Quit Being Sleazy


October 23, 1990|By Richard A. Disharoon

WERNER JANSSEN'S obituary in the September 23 edition of The Sun contained highlights of Mr. Janssen's career, including his tenure with the Baltimore Symphony, but it failed to recognize the important part he played in the development of the orchestra.

Werner Janssen was the fourth conductor of the orchestra, serving from 1937 to 1939. At age 37, he had already achieved national and international recognition as a conductor and composer of motion-picture scores. He was a handsome man who was married to an equally attractive woman, the motion-picture star Ann Harding.

The improvement shown by the orchestra under Mr. Janssen's direction was documented in The Evening Sun, and was apparent, according to the following review, at the very first concert:

''The orchestra has lost all the sleazy, tentative quality that marred its work at times in the past. The strings played with vigor, with utter assurance, and even the horns, ordinarily the weakest section of the orchestra, had a new and compelling quality of authority. . . . The attacks were precise and sure, smooth and strong . . . the pianissimo passages were soft, but full of color, and the contrasting fortissimi were roaring gales of ear-pounding melody.''

After the penultimate concert of Mr. Janssen's last season, a critic for The Evening Sun wrote what proves to be a good summary of the improvement of the orchestra under his leadership:

''The real news didn't concern the program at all, but rather the smooth and accomplished way in which the program was presented. The orchestra worked with an almost always unified effect. At times one could detect not only mere competence but also a certain deft and dexterous polish that seems to be growing as the orchestra develops in stature.''

Mr. Janssen resigned in 1939 after efforts to secure additional funding for a longer season failed. (The orchestra's season ran from January to March, a total of six concerts. Funding for the orchestra was provided by Baltimore city; the orchestra was advertised as the only municipally supported orchestra in the country. Although attempts the supplement the municipal appropriation with private funds began in 1919, private funding did not become a reality until Reginald Stewart became music director in 1942.) Mr. Janssen's frustration with this situation was apparent in his resignation letter, which was published in The Evening Sun October 20, 1939:

''In view of the perfection that I strive for at all times, I cannot, in honesty to music, to the members of the orchestra or myself, return once more and go on demanding the grueling efforts required in order to recapture what is necessarily lost in nine months -- only to lose it again at the end of three.''

In general, editorial response to the resignation conveyed disappointment at losing such a fine conductor. An Evening Sun editorial writer asked, ''Does Baltimore want a good orchestra, and if not a good orchestra, why have one at all?'' In an editorial entitled ''Tenting on a New Campground,'' Gerald Johnson, the distinguished writer for the Evening Sun, commented that Mr. Janssen had improved the orchestra's playing to the point where the patrons no longer fought over the orchestra, but over the interpretations of the conductor.

The contribution of Werner Janssen to the development of the Baltimore Symphony should never be underestimated. Perhaps if he had been able to remain in Baltimore the orchestra would have achieved widespread recognition long before the 1980s.

Dr. Disharoon teaches music at Pikesville High School.

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