Maestro Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra examined Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta as part of their "Classics Declassified" series with a performance that enhanced the concert experience through intellectual guidance. In the first half of the concert, Maestro Botstein analyzed the Sinfonietta through three lenses: a narrative lens for the overarching descriptive program, a musical lens for Janáček’s inventive speech-melody, and a political lens for the peaking Czech nationalist sentiment of the time. The second half then proceeded with a complete performance of remarkable high caliber for a part-time symphony orchestra.

Leon Botstein © Ric Kallaher
Leon Botstein
© Ric Kallaher

As Janáček wrote the Sinfonietta when he was just over 70 years old, the composition unravels quite well into a thoughtful retrospective, biographically and artistically. It opens with a famous brass fanfare, which has roots in the composer’s own exposure to Moravian brass bands. Maestro Botstein's lecture focused in part on the Sinfonietta's expansive brass orchestration. Janáček called for four horns, nine trumpets in C, three in F, two bass trumpets, four trombones, two tenor tubas, and tuba, which is impressive even for today’s standards. The American Symphony Orchestra's expanded brass section was appropriately bright and stately in its performance of the pugnacious fanfare, standing to great effect in a semicircle along the back of orchestra. Janáček did not attempt to recall the bugle or plainchant, but rather created a theme in his unique style of speech-melody and provided a fitting introduction to the second movement, Brno’s Castle.

Maestro Botstein explained that Janáček's compositional philosophy was to represent realness, which he often demonstrated through the use of repetition: life is repetitious, therefore music should be repetitious. This ideal is immediately evident in the second movement when the clarinet introduces an obligato passage, precisely executed by Laura Flax, that recurs throughout the remainder of the movement. Neoclassicism is often associated with modern Russian composers, but the simplification of rhythm and melody combined with a homophonic texture of this movement bring to mind Mozart and Haydn as well as the forthcoming “pop” genre.

Several individual parts, however, are virtuosic, and the flute writing in the third movement is a prime example. Maestro Botstein isolated the part in his lecture, so the ASO flute section could show off their daring skill. But even these virtuosic passages are integrated effectively into the whole, as Janáček's goal to achieve simplicity never extends out of reach. This third movement represents the Queen's Monastery where Janáček spent his early adult years, and Maestro Botstein noted that the head of Janáček’s monastery was none other than Gregor Mendel, the founder of modern genetics. Moving out of the monastery, the fourth movement roughly depicts life in the streets of Brno. The unmistakable juxtapositions of city life protrude from shifting tempi and conflicting harmonies that slide to dopey resolutions. Janáček shows that, in contrast to repetitive life at the castle, change occurs often in the streets.

Ultimately, Janáček’s finale cultivates in a victory for the Czech people, and it is here that nationalism is most perceivable through his use of structural metamorphosis. During his own lifetime, Janáček saw the German-ruled Moravian landscape changing as Czechoslovakian independence defined its national identity. Janáček paid homage in a grand way to the place where his people could birth a new, free nation. The movement itself, subtitled “The Town Hall, Brno”, begins with a minor folk melody in the winds before evolving into triumphant brassy bits, and the American Symphony Orchestra’s brass players powered with confidence straight to the finish.