John Axelrod

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22 Dec 2002
From the concert hall - Master of Nuance

Concerts by the Sinfonietta Cracovia are attracting increasing interest on the part of music lovers. Krakow's youngest orchestra already enjoys a significant body of enthusiasts, as evinced merely by the turnout at the Philharmonic for Tuesday's concert by the Sinfonietta Cracovia under the direction of its first conductor, John Neal Axelrod. This interest is doubtless a result of the high artistic standard that the ensemble has attained. The engaging programs that the orchestra presents also play no small role. In the repertory schedule for the entire year, December's concert carried the subtitle "Confrontations with the Unconscious". I searched in vain for this subtitle in the evening's printed program, yet it portrayed the musical climate of the concert very well, with John Neal Axelrod leading the Sinfonietta Cracovia in a performance of two works that originated at nearly the same time, towards the end of the 19th Century: Schönberg's Verklärte Nacht and Mahler's IV symphony in G Major.

Arnold Schönberg's "Transfigured Night" indeed places both listeners and performers in a "confrontation with the ulterior". Dehmel's poem, the inspiration for writing the piece, speaks of a stroll through the forest by two people torn by powerful emotions. In the transfigured night, the man forgives the woman her infidelity. The music portraying these internal dilemmas maintains the highest level of expressiveness, in which the colors and tension are constantly changing. Conveying this nuance-filled genuineness is one of the problems that the performers must contend with. The other involves the many purely technical challenges that Schönberg presents in his score. The instrumentalists of the Sinfonietta Cracovia under the baton of John Neal Axelrod, with violinist Jonathan Godfrey from Houston as guest concertmaster, handled both of these problems with ease, imbuing Schönberg's music with according color and rapture.

The Sinfonietta Cracovia acquitted itself with equal excellence in their interpretation, with an expanded ensemble, of Gustav Mahler's IV Symphony in G Major, a portrait - as intended by the composer - of two worlds: the earthly and the celestial. It's been a long time since I've heard such an interesting, animated, and truly "Mahlerian" interpretation of this symphony. The American conductor, whom I've occasionally accused of excessive abandon, this time showed himself to be a master of nuance. On Tuesday, focused, he meticulously attended to every note, while losing nothing of the spontaneity of the performance.

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