Conductor: Jiri Belohlavek
Janacek: Taras Bulba
Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major - Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95, "From the New World"
With all the pessimistic talks and anguished discussions about the falling attendance at classical music and opera performances, taking my seat in a cultural venue hosting a sold-out show is always a comforting moment, even if I am painfully aware that it also comes with some unavoidable inconveniences, such as exponentially increased chances that a concert-goer will forget to turn off their electronic device and get a call, another one will take a photo of the soloist, send it from his iPhone and carry on a conversation about it all during the performance, or another one will drop her program during the Largo.
And sure enough, all of the above happened yesterday afternoon at Carnegie Hall, where after a sold-out concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra for Mahler's "Resurrection" symphony a couple of weeks ago, the Stern auditorium could boast of a sold-out concert by the Czech Philharmonic for Dvorak's "New World" symphony. Va-va-voom! So there is hope, even if it starts with big crowd-pleasers. The rest of the program sounded like a lot of fun too, with Janacek's "Taras Bulba" ‒ If we're having the premier Czech orchestra on the stage, we might as well celebrate Czech music ‒ and my personal motivation for being in the hall, Liszt's second piano concerto performed by my fellow Lyonnais piano man extraordinaire Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
The concert started on an openly nationalistic, musically engaging, but dramatically grim note, with Janacek's "Taras Bulba", a 25-minute work inspired Gogol's short story about the Ukrainian Cossack's fight against the Poles, in which each of the three movements features a death (Bulba's younger son, Bulba's older son, Bulba). With the inventiveness of Janacek's score and the dynamic conducting of Jiri Belohlavek strongly emphasizing the burning dilemma between personal feelings and patriotic duty, the story swiftly unfolded with lavish melodies and resounding fanfares in a fiercely colorful number.
The first time I heard Jean-Yves Thibaudet perform Liszt ‒That would be "Tottentanz" several years ago ‒ I immediately realized that those two were a match made in heaven. Although I'd go hear the most stylish pianist of them all play pretty much anything, the prospect of hearing him tackle Liszt always adds an extra, irresistible, incentive. Predictably, yesterday lived up to my sky-high expectations again, even as the typical flamboyance was significantly toned down to make room for subtle introspection and the orchestra was skillfully brought in as a more equal partner. On the other hand, Liszt will be Liszt, and there were still plenty of opportunities for Thibaudet to show off his impressive virtuosic skills and his gorgeous delicate touch all the way to the old-fashioned grand finale.
Since the one-movement piano concerto lasted a mere 20 minutes, Thibaudet generously extended his much appreciated stay among us with a heavenly account of Schubert 's "Kupelwieser-Walzer", arranged by Richard Strauss, which provided us with a wonderfully soothing respite between Liszt's lush Romanticism and Dvorak's American liveliness.
Dvorak's universally popular and widely quoted "New World" symphony is the kind of works that I never go out of my way for because I know that sooner or later our paths will cross, usually after I've been lured in by another item on the program. Then I hear it again and realize what an incredibly cool composition it is again, yesterday's richly earthy performance of it by the Czech Philharmonic being yet another case in point. A heart-felt tribute to America's culture and spirit, deeply influenced by Native-American and African-American music traditions, this classic among classics never fails to captivate the listener with its unpretentious freshness and boundless exuberance. Back for the umpteenth time in the Stern Auditorium where it was premiered 121 years ago, Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 gloriously took over the whole space, proudly rising, leisurely meditating, happily dancing, unequivocally triumphing. This is obviously the stuff the musicians were born to play, and this intensely committed performance would have made Dvorak very happy.
Obviously fired-up by what they had just achieved and the enthusiastic ovation it prompted from our part, conductor and orchestra decided to just carry on and treated us to an energetic overture to The Bartered Bride by Bedrich Smetana and a melancholic "Valse triste" by Oskar Nedbal, which pleasantly rounded up our quick, incomplete, but fully enjoyed, taste of Czech composers.