Prague has a longstanding love affair with Japanese conductor Ken-ichiro Kobayashi, who seems to inspire affection wherever he goes. The Hungarians have claimed him as a favorite adopted son ever since he broke onto the international scene in 1974 by winning a conductor’s competition in Budapest. And Kobayashi earned a permanent place in the annals of Czech music in 2002, when he became the first Asian to conduct the opening concert of Prague Spring, a stirring performance of Smetana’s Má Vlast that drew an extended, enthusiastic ovation.
The disaster in Japan adds another emotional layer to any appearance by a Japanese performer these days, a point reinforced Friday night by a pre-concert announcement that the Czech Philharmonic benefit performance at the Castle two weeks earlier raised nearly 2 million crowns (about $120,000 USD) for relief efforts. So by the time Kobayashi took the podium, a packed house at the Rudolfinum was primed for something special.
The conductor did not disappoint. The first of two Beethoven symphonies, No. 1, was a masterpiece of color, dynamics and emotional restraint. It’s almost startling at first to hear an Eastern conductor rendering Western music in such authentic phasing and tones, without any foreign inflection or accent. If there is a hint of Kobayashi’s roots, it’s in the richly emotional passages – particularly the second movement of this symphony – that tend to sound gushing, even florid, in lesser hands. With Kobayashi they are deeply felt, but never overdone, a study in powerful passions roiling beneath a controlled, finely detailed surface – in short, not unlike the Japanese character.
And the sound was remarkable, perfectly balanced and almost completely transparent. This is a particularly difficult refinement; typically, only orchestras and conductors that have worked together for a long time manage to achieve it. Kobayashi’s genius is in crafting both balance and depth, giving the sound a three-dimensional quality. Indeed, parts of the third movement were like waves pounding back and forth across the stage, awesome in power and majestic in their beauty.
The heavy percussion demands of No. 7 muffled some of the luster and transparency, though none of the compact energy that Kobayashi infuses into the music. He kept the thundering rhythms of the first movement expertly controlled, and maintained a brisk pace through the famous second movement that kept it from slipping over the line into maudlin. The third and fourth movements were ramped up in both tempo and volume, but never so much that Kobayashi couldn’t segue into light, delicate sounds from the woodwinds, which sounded golden the entire evening.
The conductor is a show in himself, politely bowing to the orchestra before the start of each piece and only then ascending the podium, as if reluctant to place himself above the players. He never uses a score, focusing instead on the musicians and exploding into a ball of energy that never stops moving; even a shake of his shaggy head is a conducting gesture.
Chemistry played a big part in Friday’s performance. Kobayashi is a permanent guest conductor with the Czech Philharmonic, and the players genuinely like him. They have mischievously nicknamed him “Indian granny,” for his resemblance to an aging Navajo. More importantly, they put out for him, responding to his direction and desires with the extra effort that transforms a merely good performance into a great one.
The conductor has a practice of going through the entire orchestra after a performance, which he did twice on Friday, making many of the players stand for individual applause after each symphony. The gesture endeared him not only to the musicians but the audience, which burst into a standing ovation when Kobayashi returned to the front of the stage at the end of the concert and, in perfect timing with the players, executed a crisp, Japanese-style bow.
It was a heartfelt moment on all sides, and well-deserved. Kobayashi had done more than simply conduct Beethoven. He and the orchestra had sounded ringing notes of hope and renewal during a time of tragedy and despair.