Jansons takes fantastic turn as conductor

February 16, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

TC Here are two hard tasks for a guest conductor.

Perform music much associated with an orchestra's current and previous music directors and produce something his own.

Turn that piece, even if as familiar to the ear as a Hershey's to the palate, into something strange and wild.

Mariss Jansons accomplished those tasks in Berlioz' "Symphonie Fantastique" with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in Meyerhoff Hall last night. The performance made one remember why it's called the "Fantastic Symphony."

The BSO has played it for Serge Comissiona, whose performance was dreamy and impressionistic. And has repeatedly performed it (as well as recorded it) with David Zinman, whose draftsmanship featured more clearly defined, if less hallucinatory, textures.

Mr. Jansons combined those qualities with another best characterized as grotesque. A program note suggested that Berlioz' first symphony adumbrates those of Mahler and the tone poems of Strauss. Very few conductors actually convey such an experience.

Mr. Jansons did. The slow movement, for example, unfolded at a pace that provided repose but built relentlessly. And in the much flashier movements, the Latvian-born, Russian-trained conductor continued to demonstrate the music's architectural strengths and plumb its emotional depths. The "March to the Scaffold" swaggered with rhythmic spring and a Giant's tread and the "Witches' Sabbath" genuinely suggested the screams of Nightmare and her brood. One had the sense, moreover, that the BSO musicians were inspired and challenged by the conductor to take chances, to risk sounding ugly in order to make sounds that were as wild as those Berlioz demanded.

The first half of the concert included Rossini's overture to "La Gazza Ladra" and a performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor. Yefim Bronfman, the guest soloist, played with his usual refinement, taste and beauty of tone. But Mozart need not sound so sober, and the performance could have used a touch of the wildness that lifts Mr. Bronfman's performances of Bartok and Prokofiev from the very good to the extraordinary.

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