IN: Reviews

Powerhouse BSO Debuts


Joana Mallwitz conducts (Hilary Scott photo)

Risks abound in the presence of standard repertoire for both audiences and artists alike: that adage, “familiarity breeds contempt,” comes to mind. But in the right hands, staid repertoire can yield new insights to the inquisitive delight of an attentive and discerning audience. Such a recreative act happened with unpretentious mastery of craft at the BSO on Friday afternoon; conductor Joana Mallwitz and pianist Anna Vinnitskaya made powerhouse Boston debuts in works by Kodály, Tchaikovsky, and Schubert.

Enter Mallwitz: cleaved blonde hair cut to a short bob, dressed in an authoritative yet seemingly laid-back black outfit. Harkening the edgy spirit of Berlin, her new musical podium as chief conductor and artistic director of that city’s prestigious Konzerthausorchester, Mallwitz opened with the Zigeuner declamations that start Kodály’s Dances of Galánta

Mallwitz’s clear ictus carved phrases of brilliant rhapsodic colors interspersed with expressive instrumental solos. A piece with such a freely associative nature, such as the Kodály, surely poses a test for orchestra and guest conductor alike. One must weave transitions with lucidity while avoiding beat-heaviness so that larger shapes and arches may emerge. Moments of legato mixed with an intense rhythmic drive describe Mallwitz’s beat; her attention sharply focused on the moment, as she coaxed every micro-phrase to accumulate into a larger arc. In what would become clearer throughout the course of the concert, Mallwitz and the BSO tethered closely in a joint achievement of orchestral poetry.

Surely, it is the mark of an experienced master to easily change her role from commanding leader to dutiful liege of an equally magnanimous piano soloist. Mallwitz advocated for Vinnitskaya with deference and Kammeradschaft. As the most dangerous work on offer for the afternoon, dangerous only because of its ubiquity, would Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto allow the two debutantes to cultivate a fresh take? Quite simply, yes.

Vinnitskaya commanded with vociferous muscularity in the lower register, matched with crystalline sheen in the upper. A seemingly smaller figure to that of statuesque Mallwitz, Vinnitskaya displayed on her face that which she intently conveyed in sound. Some might posit these facial movements as eccentric affectations, but we really know they are simply the joyful byproduct of an illustrative and intense, all-consuming concentration.

The famous D-flat major opening of the first movement (sadly only heard just this once) transitions to the minor mode in a pastiche of scherzando and lyrical dream-like sections (the latter being particularly reminiscent of similar moments found in Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor , and maybe also that of Grieg). Vinnitskaya communicated directly during the solo cadenzas intermixed between the various textural sections of Scene One. The irresistible first movement concluded with general audience applause. Vinnitskaya assuredly dazzled with her virtuosic, supple, and facile musicianship.

Anna Vinnitskaya makes BSO debut (Hilary Scott photo)

The Andantino semplice cleansed the palate as Vinnitskaya channeled melodious lyricism throughout this intermezzo. Swooning and spritely keys paired alongside solos of the same melodious tune by cellist Oliver Aldort, and oboist John Ferrillo. The final burst of sheer fire arrived in the Allegro con fuoco: tension built in consecutive waves until the final lyrical declamation harkened the glorious affirmation before the coda. The perennial crowd pleaser ignited audience passion once again. Vinnitskaya rewarded us with a sumptuous miniature of quintessential Russian color in Rachmaninoff’s Étude-Tableau Op. 33, No.2 in C Major (his 150th birthday happens this year). 

Schubert’s rollicking, immense Ninth Symphony, “The Great,” provided Mallwitz et al a great opportunity for orchestral expression: brisk, rhythmic, scintillating with brilliance, and at times harmonically devastating. Mallwitz conducted from memory, as she had earlier for the Kodály. No doubt this cerebral command of musical structure allowed for an economy of motion which nevertheless highlighted those signal elements of Schubert’s masterpiece. Her temperance and restraint summoned the seemingly multi-dimensional affect of Schubert’s work.

The first movement chorale-introduction and main body unfolded as a stream of consciousness: Beethovenian rhythmic drive mixed with Schubertian songfulness. Mallwitz captured details and dynamic contrasts that drew us ever-forward through the narrative. Long phrases spun through ineffable pps, especially during the first movement’s recapitulation, sounded brilliant. The trombone section gleamed as religious penitents. 

In the massive A Minor second movement, the wrath of God seemingly came down like lightening only to be assuaged post-fermata, with Schubert’s sad-happy lyricism. The Scherzo and Allegro vivace tarantella brimmed with supercharged energy. Mallwitz’s compact baton motions quivered as clear indication of the outward rambunctiousness. The joint mastery earned a standing ovation.

These two powerhouse musicians certainly debuted with poise and élan, recreating standard works in a way that makes a compelling case for the enduring musical virtues of the Canon.

Nicolas Sterner is a conductor, cellist, educator, and writer based in Cambridge, MA. Active as a freelancer and organizer of concerts, he is the founder and collaborative director of the Chromos Collaborative.  Most recently, his “Courtyard Concert” series with Chromos received public recognition by the Boston Globe, as part of their the Covid-19 pandemic piece “What we lost, what we found.” For more information, please visit Nicolas’ professional portfolio at


11 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. What a fantastic concert we heard Saturday night from Joana Mallwitz and the BSO. It really was a powerhouse debut. Maestro (or Maestra?) Mallwitz came with a lot of strong advance press, but there are other young conductors we’ve heard in recent years who did as well and who subsequently did not deliver the goods (Lahav Shani quickly comes to mind). But Maestro/a Mallwitz did for sure – and then some. She is so musical, can very clearly express what she wants, and the orchestra gave it to her in spades. It seemed she had real chemistry with the BSO, and it seemed the musicians very much respected her. Her ability to achieve sonic balances was really impressive – many more seasoned conductors seem unable to do that when they perform guest conducting gigs in Boston. But Maestro/a Mallwitz really had a keen ear and sense of proportion that was deeply considered and always at the service of the music.

    The Schubert 9 was wonderful. The only criticism I had of the performance was that the 2nd movement just felt too rushed and did not fully breathe. It was not an Andante, it was an Allegretto. The Scherzo appropriately bounced, and the final had all the requisite energy. It was one of the best performances of the many I’ve heard of this joyful symphony, although it did not surpass the lightning-in-a-bottle performance we heard from Juanjo Mena somewhere around 2015/16 as memory serves, which seems unsurpassable. Still, this was an outstanding performance that everyone participating in should be proud of. And it was a joy to listen to.

    Anna Vinnitskaya is a wonderful pianist and it was a great pleasure to hear her in the Tchaikovsky 1st piano concerto. Most importantly, her playing was rich, warm, and did not have any of the vulgar stridency that all too many pianists fall into in this work in particular. There was a lot of poetry in her playing, and I would love to hear her again. That said, I thought the first movement generally was unsuccessful – at far too languid a tempo. It lacked energy and to these ears did not cohere, ending up as a collection of moments. Many of those moments were lovely, but compared to the performance we heard a few years ago from Beatrice Rana with Dima Slobodeniouk (which to these ears reached heights I’d never experienced in this warhorse before), this performance was not on that exalted level. Still, the 2nd and 3rd movements were spot-on, and overall it was an enjoyable performance.

    But for me the story of the evening was Joana Mallwitz. Let’s hope the BSO brings her back again – quickly, and that we get to hear her artistry regularly. She strikes me as the single best young conductor I’ve heard in the last decade. I can’t wait to hear again.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — November 5, 2023 at 7:29 am

  2. One other important thing I failed to mention in my review about the Schubert 9. What I ESPECIALLY appreciated was that this was an unapologetically “Big Band” performance of this masterpiece. I am not a fan of HIP (“historically”-informed performances – which the scholarship shows really aren’t, and for sure my ears tells me are often musically-uninformed), and it’s saddened me how much this HIP aberration has seeped into the performances of too many mainstream conductors. Maestro/Maestra Mallwitz was having none of it. Her reading of the symphony had unabashedly “Big Band” and full of heart, soul, and was unafraid to sing and wear its emotions on its sleeve where appropriate. That alone made me pleased – but the performance went beyond any musical “ideology” – instead, it was just musical and a joy to listen to. Bravo!!

    Comment by Mogulmeister — November 5, 2023 at 7:38 am

  3. Can anyone tell
    me what the encore on Saturday evening was?

    Comment by Ed — November 5, 2023 at 11:55 am

  4. RACHMANINOFF Étude-Tableau, Op.39 No.5 (Appassionato)

    Comment by Tony Fogg — November 5, 2023 at 4:15 pm

  5. It`s a great review, Nicolas!

    Exiting to read, it made me feel sorry for not being able to attend this concert.

     Special thanks for mention the names of the orchestra soloists.

    Comment by Ivan Gusev — November 5, 2023 at 5:30 pm

  6. Even more so than the Emperor, the Grieg concerto, or Saint-Saëns’ second, this concerto grabs the audience right at the beginning. No wonder it created a sensation at the time of its world premiere in Boston.

    It certainly grabbed my attention. Vinnitskaya’s chords fully matched the intensity of the orchestra; every note was clear. I have heard this concerto hundreds of times, but rarely have I paid such close attention all the way through, rediscovering moments I had forgotten.

    Likewise with the Schubert. I don’t know if I’ve heard the Kodály before, but if not, I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the piece. I noticed the horn calls about eight measures in, which told me there would be a connection among the three pieces.

    Comment by Mark Lutton — November 5, 2023 at 8:46 pm

  7. Is it really still obligatory to mention what a female conductor chooses to wear or how she wears her hair? Really now.

    Comment by Bruce Creditor — November 5, 2023 at 9:07 pm

  8. It’s worthwhile to describe the attire of conductors as it conveys something about their musical persona. In this instance, my remarks have little to do with Mallwitz’s gender and more to do with her individuality. Whether we like it or not, choice of clothing does indeed make a statement.

    Comment by Nicolas Sterner — November 5, 2023 at 10:02 pm

  9. Thank you, Tony Fogg, for your answer to my encore question.
    And, thank you, Mr. Sterner, for your compelling review.
    As for the question about commenting on the conductor’s clothing, where is (former Globe reviewer) Richard Dyer when you need him?
    More seriously, within the past two weeks I have seen and heard and seen Paul Lewis and Anna Vinnitskaya perform (from 5th row center seats even!) Take me now!

    Comment by Ed — November 6, 2023 at 1:23 am

  10. I was so privileged to be in the audience for this concert! Absolutely riveting and at the same time transporting. Someday it will not be noteworthy to have women in both roles of conductor and soloist, and I was smiling from ear to ear most of the evening (I’m 75, so “It’s about time!”) As far as clothing – of course we notice what “leaders/stars” wear (as you can see, a stunning dress Ms. Vinnitskaya wore, too!)… Maestro Yannick Nezet-Sequin’s on-stage wardrobe (including “bling” on his shoe heels) is breaking barriers and causing commentary. Such fun for these skilled, passionate, dedicated and successful people to be expressing themselves. Thank you, Mr. Sterner, for your technical and passionate work sharing the blessing of this concert for those present and absent.

    Comment by Emily Teller — November 20, 2023 at 12:42 pm

  11. On the “Maestra” / “Maestro” question for female conductors, I’m told that it’s actually most accurate and proper to use the term “Maestro” across the board, for all genders of conductor. The reason that I heard is that in Italian culture, the term “Maestra” refers to a female schoolteacher. As a bit of a sidebar, in Elena Ferrante’s ‘Neapolitan Quartet’, “Maestra” is indeed used in reference to one of the lead character’s elementary school teachers. So in that context, it makes sense. At a concert this past summer at Opera Theatre of STL, Patricia Racette (the source in question here) very clearly introduced the conductor as “Maestro” Daniela Candillari.

    BTW, if anyone wants to do a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise between the BSO performances and a video from Berlin, this pandemic-time video features Joana Mallwitz conducting the Schubert D. 944 with the Konzerthausorchester Berlin, with social distancing and no audience:

    I heard the WCRB relay, and the concert sounded very good indeed. I can understand the very favorable reviews. No doubt the BSO is already working to try to bring her back.

    PS: While this sounded like a “big band” performance, this also featured the good side of HIPP, namely its crispness and feeling of the cobwebs cleared.

    Comment by Geo. — November 29, 2023 at 3:56 pm

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