Hrůša gives an impressive CSO debut with a glorious Má vlast

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Jakub Hrůša, conductor
Symphony Center
Chicago, IL
May 18, 2017

Smetana: Má vlast

While Smetana’s Vltava (more commonly branded in its German rendering of The Moldau) is a well-known quantity, the cycle of six tone poems from where it comes, collectively titled Má vlast, has become something of a rarity outside the composer’s Czech homeland.  So much so that Thursday night’s performance was the CSO’s first traversal of the complete work in over three decades – the score was last visited by the Czech former music director Rafael Kubelík in 1983, and later by James Levine on a 1987 Ravinia program.

Smetana’s magnum opus served as a fine platform for the talented young conductor Jakub Hrůša – recently named principal guest conductor of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra – to make his CSO debut, and by all accounts, it was a success.  The last time I caught a performance of the complete Má vlast was at the Pittsburgh Symphony under Jiří Bělohlávek, with whom Hrůša studied – in each case, I was struck how both conductors managed to commit the expansive score to memory, a testament to the importance of this work to Czech musicians.

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Jakub Hrůša and the CSO, photo credit Brittany Sowacke

Vyšehrad, the spacious opening selection, invoked the titular ancient fortress in Prague with a stentorian theme in the brass that recurred throughout the cycle.  It began with the two harps in a rhapsodic passage, given freely without Hrůša’s conducting, as if a minstrel telling a tale.  The piece built to powerful brassy climaxes, but the terraced dynamics were controlled in such a way that matters never fell into empty bombast, and a quiet, contemplative statement of the Vyšehrad theme closed this first tone poem.

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Vyšehrad, on the banks of the Vltava. Smetana is buried at the cemetery at Vyšehrad (as is Dvořák).

Vltava had particular poignancy in assuming its rightful place in the context of the cycle.  A pair of liquescent flutes depicted the two streams that converge to form the mighty river, and the river’s journey was traced in vivid detail.  The famous primary theme was given with a sweeping passion, while in due course there was portrayal of the bubbling St. John’s Rapids, a spirited peasant wedding, and most memorably, the mystical atmosphere of the water nymphs.  Signaling the river’s arrival in Prague was fittingly a further invocation of the Vyšehrad motif.

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Vltava River in Prague, photo credit Ocean/Corbis

A violent intensity characterized Šárka in its garish detailing of a most gruesome tale: a battle of the sexes, wherein the titular figured commanded a battalion of warrior maidens to drug and eventually murder a group of unsuspecting men.  Šárka herself was represented via a sinuous clarinet line, very finely played by Steven Williamson, and the work grew to wild, unrelenting heights, with the trombones adding a shattering heft to the coda.

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Josef Václav Myslbek’s sculpture of Šárka at Vyšehrad, photo credit Wikipedia

Z českých luhů a hájů (translated in the program books as From Bohemia’s Field and Groves) is certainly a highpoint of the set.  Despite its innocuous title, it began with a turbulent pathos, giving way to a sophisticated and expertly articulated fugato, perhaps suggesting the complexity of the Czech people who embody more than mere rustic simplicity.  Still, the tone poem positively exuded a joie de vivre in a theme initiated by the mellifluous horns.

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The Czech countryside, photo credit Keren Su/Corbis

The final two works were written as an afterthought to the preceding, yet they are inextricably linked both to each other and to the cycle as a whole.  Tábor opened with a defiant statement of a Hussite chorale, perhaps mirroring the defiance with which Smetana feverishly composed music in the face of deafness.  A sweet choir of winds added some contrast, while the propulsive intensity of the main theme was grinded out by the low strings.

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Tábor, Czech Republic, photo credit Wikipedia

The concluding Blaník, named for a mountain where according to legend, St. Wenceslas’ army lay dormant but prepared to rally in a time of great need, picked up right where Tábor left off.  This time, however, the chorale was noticeably brighter, a hint to the glorious direction the music was headed.  Appropriately, it concluded with a final pronouncement of the venerable Vyšehrad theme, now triumphant and victorious in the shining CSO brass.

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Blaník viewed from the southwest, photo credit Wikipedia
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Chicago Symphony’s return marked by a jovial program with Bramwell Tovey

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Bramwell Tovey, conductor
Symphony Center
Chicago, IL
February 4, 2017

Walton: Orb and Sceptre
Britten: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34
Tchaikovsky: The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66 – Act II

After devoting January to an extensive and triumphant European tour, the Chicago Symphony returned to Symphony Center last weekend in their first concert on home turf since mid-December.  This also marked the subscription debut of the talented British conductor Bramwell Tovey, who currently serves as music director of the Vancouver Symphony.  The repertoire choices spanned the European continent from a British first half to a Russian finale, alluring in their ebullience.

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Bramwell Tovey

A rarity (and first performance for the CSO) opened in Walton’s Orb and Sceptre, a spirited coronation march he wrote for the crowning of Elizabeth II in 1953.  It began with extrovert playing in brass, sounding not unlike the ubiquitous Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The score called for an organ which gave matters a particularly ceremonial quality.  The work’s showstopping moment came in the contrasting lyrical theme which invoked the nobility of Elgar, and returned in the concluding peroration – the CSO’s energetic playing bordering on the overzealous.

Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra began with a stately presented of the Baroque theme, derived from the Rondeau of Purcell’s incidental music to Abdelazer.  Opening with the force of the full orchestra, the variations are distilled to each of the constituent instruments, teaching the titular young listener to identify the characteristic sound of each.  Among the highpoints were Keith Buncke demonstrating the lyrical potential of the bassoon, and the trumpet duet between Mark Ridenour and Tage Larsen.  The closing fugue was innocently initiated in the piccolo by Jennifer Gunn (though regrettably, not without a few missed notes), building up to the thrilling climax in which Purcell’s original melody is superimposed over Britten’s fugue subject.  The dignified manner in which the musicians presented the work made the case that only the subtitle – “Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell” – was necessary, this being a work of much more than mere didacticism.

The latter half was devoted the entire second act of Tchaikovsky’s seminal ballet score, The Sleeping Beauty.  Despite the act’s abundance of first-rate music, it’s also some of the ballet’s least-known as none appears in the familiar suite the composer extracted (and of which Muti conducted during a memorable all-Tchaikovsky program in Millennium Park at the beginning of the 2014-15 season).  Tovey provided the audience with a spoken introduction, detailing the act’s plot and brimming with his characteristic British wit.

A rustic atmosphere drew the audience into Tchaikovsky’s fairy tale world, as portrayed by the brilliance of the horns.  Tovey suggested that the harp represents the realm of the supernatural, and it was beautifully played by Sarah Bullen, a noteworthy addition to the score’s rich colors.  Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson’s silvery flute vividly brought the Lilac Fairy to life.  The farandole was another delightful moment, though Tchaikovsky imbued it with an ineffable Eastern tinge, à la the mazurka.  John Sharp’s cello solo truly yearned in the Pas d’action, only to be outdone by concertmaster Robert Chen’s extended passagework in the Entr’acte that heralds the act’s finale (and originally composed for Leopold Auer).  Heretofore silent, the percussionists finally had their due in the concluding moments, Cynthia Yeh’s gong dramatically signifying the long-awaited awakening of Aurora, and the act concluded in rousing fashion.