Jiři Bélohávek conducting Czech music! It’s self-recommending, both when he conducted the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Saturday at the Music Center at Strathmore and when he conducts his own Prague Philharmonia at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday. (I will be skipping the latter because I am apparently too lame to go to a concert on a Tuesday night, but you should check it out.)
The man grew up on and came to worldwide prominence for his skill with Czech music. Along with his Prague Philharmonia duties, he’ll take the reins once again of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in September. (He had previously been music director from 1990 through 1992, during which various events in world history were transpiring.) He’s made lots of records and earned tons of renown. Even if you didn’t make your parents spend a bunch of time during your family’s Prague vacation in record stores looking for Supraphon releases that hadn’t made it to Tower Records, as I did, this concert was a potential Event.
Happily, Bélohávek led with Antonín Dvořák’s ebullient Carnival Overture, and the very opening bars gave me goosebumps with their sheer energy and unity, everyone perfectly in step in the celebration. The Balmer ladies and gentlemen took the rhythmic snaps of the opening theme like true Bohemians (as opposed to Baltimore’s National Bohemians, which are not bad in and of themselves). Later, in a slower section, the oboe and flute lofted solos that layered like colors of a sunset as the strings fairly glistened beneath. In the full-orchestra passages, sometimes the strings and brass swamped the winds, but that blemish couldn’t spoil this performance, capped by superlatively enthusiastic tambourine playing that delighted both me and my concertgoing companion.
Having begun the first half with a kinetic, colorful crowd-pleaser, Bélohávek decided to do it again after intermission with Zoltán Kodály’s “Dances of Galánta.” Kodály is technically Hungarian rather than Czech, but Bélohávek led the dances as fluently as he had Dvořák’s celebration, and here the conductor had solved the balance problem so that the opening slow introduction sounded properly rich with oboe color before the folktunes began snapping and darting and generally making the most possible merriment. Both the Kodály and the Dvořák performances had moments where I felt like I was on a roller coaster, just barely following the twists and turns, a physically exhilarating experience.
Of course, an entire program of such pieces would leave you as winded as riding Superman: Ride of Steel five times in a row without stopping, so more serious works were performed as well. Proving that seriousness does not equal quality, Shai Wosner joined the orchestra to perform one of the more colorless versions of Ludwig van Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto that I’ve ever heard. After his quiet chords opened the concerto, he fidgeted nonstop during the orchestral exposition, brushing the keys with his fingertips, adjusting his position, and generally calling unnecessary attention to himself. His actual playing remained quiet and inward, so much so that the orchestra frequently drowned him out despite not playing particularly loudly. Wosner pumped up the volume a bit after the cadenza late in the first movement, but even then nothing in the performance felt particularly meaningful; little in his tone, phrasing, musical line, or anything else conveyed imaginative engagement with the music. Bélohávek and the BSO continued to play with great intensity, holding our attention in the passages in the slow movement in which the piano (in the classic analogy) plays lyrically in the manner of Orpheus trying to escape the stormy chords of the underworld. Here, the underworld sounded like a formidable opponent, plus it’s pretty hard for those passages not to command some attention.
Leos Janacek’s “Taras Bulba” put Bélohávek and the BSO on Czechier ground to close the concert. Here Janacek manipulates motives to spin a tale, in this case three moments in the life of the titular hero; as in many Janacek works, it’s hard to tell exactly how much emphasis to put on the narration versus the music. Bélohávek made the various characters and situations easy to hear but also ensured that the music had an independent logic as thorny, tragic and passionate as the stories on which it was based. The BSO once again played splendidly, vividly bringing out the contrasts and sudden sharp turns in the music, and the closing music showing the ultimate triumph of Taras’ people made me a little misty-eyed — a fitting ending to this concert of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto and three highly memorable performances.
Other People’s Perspectives: Cecilia Porter. So someone (besides the bunch of people who stood to applaud) enjoyed Wosner’s performance!