Marek Janowski rides out vagaries of the pandemic

Felix Broede

Though conductor Marek Janowski has been scheduled for months to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this fall, getting his U.S. travel visa came down to the wire because of delays and restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. “Believe it or not, I got the visa today. Today!” the Polish-born German conductor said Oct. 27 from Berlin.

He is set to take a plane on Halloween and begin rehearsals that week. His Nov. 4-6 concerts mark his first return to Orchestra Hall since he made his debut there with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2018. (The maestro earlier led two sets of CSO concerts in 1982 and 1991 at the Ravinia Festival.)

John von Rhein, then classical music critic of the Chicago Tribune, had much praise for Janowski’s program of 19th-century German stalwarts. “The results were comparable to what a master restorer of vintage paintings would achieve through his art,” von Rhein wrote. “Centuries of grime and yellowed varnish were removed, revealing the original colors in all their pristine glory.”

This time, Janowski, 82, will lead another of program Austro-Germanic masterworks, his specialty repertoire, all chosen to accommodate a compact orchestra. The program begins with Mendelssohn’s 1833 concert overture, The Hebrides, which the conductor called a “beautiful opener,” and culminates with Mozart’s ever-popular Jupiter Symphony. Between is the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1, featuring Chicago Symphony concertmaster Robert Chen as soloist. “The program works very well together,” Janowski said. “I’m very much looking forward to doing these pieces.”

When Janowski came to Chicago in 2018, he was preparing to take over in fall 2019 as principal conductor and artistic director of the Dresden Philharmonic, the lesser-known counterpart to the famed Staatskapelle Dresden. He did just that, but his first season with the orchestra was brought to an abrupt halt with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The orchestra was able to do a few radio and compact-disc recordings, but its activities were severely curtailed through 2020-21.

In recent weeks, the Dresden Philharmonic has returned to live performances, but like the CSO, it has imposed certain pandemic mandates to keep audiences safe. “We hope that we can more easily get through this winter than we got through last year’s winter, but nothing is for sure,” Janowski said. Planning in the operatic and symphonic worlds is still done years in advance, as traditionally has been the case, but the pandemic can throw wrenches in the works. “You are aware all the time that you might have to change next week everything and anything," he said. "It’s a very strange feeling.”

Despite all of this, Janowski has nonetheless been able to rekindle a strong bond with his ensemble. “It’s a very fine orchestra — very high quality,” he said. “We have a new hall that opened in 2017 with fantastic acoustics, and it’s becoming known as one of the acoustically leading new halls in Germany. It’s on the way to becoming a really famous symphony hall.”

From 2001 through 2003, Janowski served as chief conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic, but he stepped down because of the inadequate venue where the ensemble then performed. A new 1,760-seat concert hall was added inside Dresden’s rebuilt Kulturpalast — the one which Janowski is now praising — and the orchestra was able to lure him back.

Like other maestros, Janowski lost the bulk of his guest-conducting engagements during the pandemic, but his schedule is returning to normal in 2021-22, with concerts in Zürich, Cologne, Warsaw and Budapest. “Especially at the beginning of 2021 and the end of 2020, music performance was standing still,” he said. “Nothing really happened live.” As in Dresden, the bulk of the activities were radio productions, and they provided only a fraction of a normal work level. “Now, since this summer, things are getting better,” he said. “I’m very curious and a little bit afraid about what will happen during the winter months.”

As for other visits to the United States, Janowski is set to lead three concerts in June 2022 with pianist Emanuel Ax and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. In March, he is scheduled to conduct the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. It will be his first time back with the New York company since the ’80s. He stopped returning to the Met because he didn’t like the multi-day breaks between performances, which left him sitting around for weeks with few possibilities of other conducting opportunities in between. (European symphonic schedules are structured differently and make it easier for conductors to squeeze in performances between opera performances.)

“Now, I’m an old guy, and I’m looking forward to exactly that situation," he said. "To have five performances and three to five days in between and have a more relaxed time in New York — I’m very much looking forward to that.”

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