It’s not often that a University Musical Society concert becomes political, or that the conductor of an orchestra pens a program note expressing the political relevance of a concert being done overseas. The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance at Hill Auditorium this past Thursday night, however, was both a musical and political event. A celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Czech Republic’s “liberation from the Austrian Empire’s domination,” the program was a testament to “the courage and determination shown by the Czech people in the fight to preserve their national identity” as “nothing … can ever conquer the human spirit when it refuses to surrender.”
Extra musical events aside, the concert offered was captivating, though admittedly inconsistent, in its presentation of three staples of the repertoire: Dvořák’s “Cello Concerto in B Minor,” Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings” and Tchaikovsky’s “Francesca da Rimini: Symphonic Fantasia after Dante in E Minor.” It was a two-and-a-half hour exploration of late-19th century Romanticism and it demonstrated the triumphs and struggles of these composers in their contributions to the orchestral repertoire.
The “Cello Concerto,” the first piece on the program, was the most consistent and stunning performance of the night. From the bold opening moments of the first movement to the triumphant conclusion of the unexpectedly slow finale, this was a masterful performance by an orchestra in prime performance.
The soloist Alisa Weilerstein played beautifully. If anything, I only wish she hadn’t played the quieter passages just as quietly as she did — there were a couple moments where it became hard to hear her part over that of the orchestra. The concertmaster’s solo was quite moving, as were the various solo passages in the winds and brass. The audience’s appreciation was palpable. They erupted in applause after the first movement and a standing ovation after the piece ended.
The “Serenade for Strings,” a string orchestra work, was performed with the same gusto if not the same precision. At its highest and lowest points, the work shined, but some of the middle transitional passages felt to me to be slightly flat. The triumphant ending and slow lyrical passages were triumphant and stunning, and the quiet ending to the third movement going into the fourth movement was absolutely breathtaking.
Overall, however, it felt as though the orchestra struggled a bit to maintain the interpretive nuance they brought to the first work. It felt to me as though the orchestra got stuck in the vast middle ground between emulation of the notes in the score and interpretation of the work in question. While the performance was technically stellar, I didn’t experience the same interpretive magic as I did in the first work.
The third work, the “Francesca da Rimini,” contained many incredibly moving moments and a couple of awkward, problematic moments. In the beginning, a couple of the entrances and complex rhythmic passages felt off. Some of the quick brass and woodwind gestures didn’t line up convincingly enough to me, and the opening moments of the work definitely felt a little jarring. As the work progressed, however, the orchestra began to unify behind one interpretive idea.
The last moments of the piece were perhaps the most impressive of the night. The lower strings, brass and woodwinds provided a platform upon which the strings soared. And the build to this movement was also impressive, the swirling chromatic harmonies meandering towards many false cadences before bursting into a convincing finale.
The audience treated the orchestra to an immediate standing ovation. After a couple of bows, the orchestra treated the audience to an encore: Dvořák’s “Slavonic Dance No. 2 in E minor.” The orchestra performed this encore with the ease and grace they had expressed at the end of the “Francesca da Ramini.” While not necessarily the most stunning of performances, it was impressive.
After more applause, however, the orchestra offered yet another encore: Dvořák’s “Slavonic Dance No. 1 in C Major.” This performance was also impressive but it felt a little overblown. The audience’s applause has begun to fade as the conductor reappeared for this encore and given a minute or two more I doubt it would have been appropriate. This is not to say that the performance had been bad, but after nearly two-and-a-half hours of music by these two composers, I know I had begun to wish for some change in repertoire or style.
Few orchestras can sustain themselves on five pieces by extremely similar composers, and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra proved to be no exception. As a testament to the work of these composers, however, the orchestra made a compelling argument for their inclusion in the classical music canon and their continued relevance to the orchestral music of today.