It's sometimes said that composers are the best conductors of their own music. It's much less often the case that composers make superb conductors of other people's music.
Nevertheless, that was exactly the case last night in Temple Oheb Shalom when Krzysztof Penderecki conducted the Warsaw Sinfonia in a concert presented by the Gordon Charitable Trust.
Penderecki, one of the world's best-known living composers, took a fresh approach to Mendelssohn's "Italian Symphony." In the first and fourth movements, Penderecki led his splendid young orchestra at an exhilarating pace, but there also was an affecting lightness of touch, close observation of details and consistent expressiveness. The finale, in which the flute part was delicately pointed by Hanna Turonek, was a fine illustration of what is meant by references to the composer's "fairy music." The second movement, while slower than usual, created a rapt atmosphere, never ceased to flow and was never sentimental.
Penderecki and the orchestra accompanied the young American cellist, Allison Eldredge, in a fine account of Saint-Saens' Concerto No. 1. Eldredge played the piece, if not with the charm and grace of an older master, with the fervor and impulse that are the province of the young. The 24-year-old cellist has an exceptionally robust, colorful tone, and she was able to refine her timbre for the more delicate parts of the slow movement.
Beethoven's overture to "The Creatures of Prometheus" opened the concert with imposing muscle and grandeur.
Had Penderecki devoted himself to conducting, instead of composing,he probably would have become a much richer man than he is. That the rest of us would have been the poorer for it was illustrated by his "Sinfonietta per Archi," which preceded the "Italian Symphony" on the program. Finished in 1991, this short work for string orchestra is not one of Penderecki's major pieces. But it is music that can stand without diminishment alongside Beethoven or Mendelssohn. It is a string orchestra tour de force -- two movements, both fast, which run into each other without pause -- in which the string sections begin at different times motoric toccatas. While "only" a showpiece, the Sinfonietta's 12 minutes are packed with emotional force, somewhat in the manner of a Shostakovich scherzo, and it contains two hauntingly beautiful solos for viola and for cello.
The encores were a Prokofiev Gavotte, a Rossini overture and the scherzo from Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8.