|Gardiner led a heartfelt tribute to his colleague.|
According to no less than an authority than Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Czech music had no better advocate and friend than Sir Charles Mackerras. “More than any other individual, he’s the reason every opera house in the world wants to do Janáček now,” Gardiner told a standing-room only crowd that turned out to honor Mackerras at the Rudolfinum Friday night.
|Czech music fan Mackerras.|
A celebrated conductor who fell in love with Czech music while studying in Prague in the late 1940s, Mackerras died in London in July, at the age of 84. A full list of the concerts, recordings and musical scholarship he devoted to promulgating the Czech canon would fill pages – and in fact did in Friday’s program book. Mackerras was above all a Janáček enthusiast. Years later, recalling the first time he heard Kaťa Kabanova, at the National Theater in Prague, he said, “That was an incredible experience...it changed my life.”
The tribute program that Gardiner conducted was a sampler of the five major Czech composers: Dvořák, Smetana, Suk, Martinů and Janáček. It followed Mackerras’ tastes, which was a treat. Typically, the latter three get only minor or occasional space on programs, with the lion’s share of time and energy devoted to Smetana and Dvořák. That was reversed, to great effect.
The concert opened with Dvořák’s Carnival overture, followed by the “Šarká” section from Smetana’s Má vlast (My country). Gardiner cranked up both to maximum volume, leaning heavily on the percussion to infuse them with energy and exuberance. There was only one rehearsal for the performance, and it showed most in these two pieces, which were a bit ragged around the edges and almost too boisterous at times.
In his remarks to the audience – after apologizing that he couldn’t speak in Czech, as Maestro Mackerras did – Gardiner allowed that his preferences are for the pastoral strains in Czech music. That was evident in the third selection, Suk’s Fairy Tale (a suite from his music for the play Radúz and Mahulena). Gardiner slowed down the tempo and drew some very nice colors and nuances from the orchestra, aided by fine solo work from violinist Miroslav Vilímec.
Martinů’s Symphony No. 6 (Fantaisies symphoniques) is a delightful piece of music, another of his inventive mash-ups of classical techniques and modern sounds. It threatened to run away from Gardiner a couple times, but he kept a nice balance, opening up the strings and horns in particular and giving them a chance to breathe.
The concluding work, the finale from Janáček’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen, was Gardiner’s finest moment. He showed a great feel for the music, which flowed like a forest brook under his baton, rippling and shimmering, evoking the sweet, poignant atmosphere of the opera. It was hard to hear baritone Ivan Kusnjer at times, at least in the balcony, but that was only a minor distraction in what was otherwise a soaring rendering of an unabashedly emotional selection.
And speaking of emotional, the orchestra was clearly playing from its collective heart, with unusual warmth and enthusiasm. It was wonderful to hear. Equally touching were the memories that viola player Jaroslav Ponděliček shared with the audience, recalling how Mackerras would still be going strong when the orchestra members were worn out from a full day of rehearsal, prompting them to call him “nezničitelný” (indestructible).
During rehearsals with the orchestra last year, Ponděliček said, Mackerras told several members of the ensemble, “This is the last time.” Was he being wistful, or did he have a premonition? No one knows. “It’s a haunting feeling,” Ponděliček said. “And tonight it’s too late, he can’t hear us anymore. Or can he?”