[classical] everything it should be: Czech Philharmonic’s Dvorak and Smetana

Two weeks ago, I randomly thought to myself, I’d love to hear Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony in e minor (“New World”) live. I randomly googled for performances in DC; to my delight, the Czech Philharmonic was giving a free performance of it in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. A Czech orchestra playing the quintessential Czech composer! For free!

On the bitingly chilly and wet Monday evening, I trekked over to the National Cathedral (which is irritatingly situated so there is no metro within 20 minutes walking distance) and sat through close to one hour of speeches by eminent politicians, furiously complaining on Facebook chat to one of my classically-minded friends that “I’m never going to hear the music.”

Once the Czech Philharmonic finally started playing, I couldn’t stop the tingly feelings in my spine and my hands unconsciously making small motions loosely following conducting movements. The warm, golden strings reverberated in the National Cathedral, the brass rang clear yet smooth and rounded, and the orchestra was like a well-oiled, luxury vehicle, refined, deliberate and cohesive. They had both restraint and spontaneity, purpose and whimsy. It was a nuanced performance, yet with breathtaking vistas overall. I can confidently say this is one of the best orchestral performances I have ever heard– certainly, the Czech Philharmonic was a step beyond just understanding Dvorak. They had the experience and supple musicality to execute their visions well and in full.

The recording that I listen to most often is the two-piano arrangement by Duo Crommelynck. The arrangement distills the essential lines very clearly and cleverly; Patrick and Taeko have a raw energy that is particularly, I think, suited to Dvorak’s folk melodies and rhythms. Yet, listening to the Czech Philharmonic interpret this music in real time reminded me why the cold brilliance of the piano can never match an orchestra. Of course, any reasonably good pianist can create warmth, but at its core, the piano is a percussive instrument. Strings have no such bite, and the tender moments are all the more moving– the sound swells in a way that pianos cannot.

The Czech Philharmonic also played a selection from Bedrich Smetana’s My Country. I often think of Smetana as a lesser Dvorak, but perhaps I have not given Smetana a long enough listen. The selection was a little heavy-handed in motif repetitions; while also a common occurrence in Dvorak’s music, Dvorak tends to vary the repetitions much more whereas Smetana sometimes seems to be needlessly doing recycling. As this is a paragraph of complaints, I will lodge one more– the National Cathedral is not a good space for an orchestra. It is long and narrowly tall, more suited for chamber music than a full-bodied orchestra. A better venue would have been the National Shrine, more open and airier.

In the future, I’ll keep an eye out for the Czech Philharmonic, especially if they are playing Romantic or Classical repertoire; they’re just begging for a Yo-yo Ma Dvorak cello concerto collaboration. I also have a funny feeling that they’d be absolutely fantastic with Samuel Barber’s cello concerto as well. One can only hope.

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