Sunday, October 16, 2011


October 12

Adept at both the classical and modern repertoire.

One of the advantages of being the junior orchestra in town is that you can be more creative in your programming. In the case of the Prague Philharmonia, it’s not a matter of expectations; the orchestra has a substantial subscriber base that, like most audiences in Prague, prefers a conservative approach to the classics. But the Philharmonia isn’t obligated to promulgate the Czech canon, like the Czech Philharmonic or Prague Symphony Orchestra. And with a relatively young group of players (average age: 34) and a baby-faced Music Director and Chief Conductor (Jakub Hrůša, 30) at the helm, it’s open to new ideas.

You can’t get much newer than the Czech premiere of Kryštof Mařatka’s Praharphona, the centerpiece of the Philharmonia’s opening concert of the 2011-12 season. Written in 2009 for harpist Jana Boušková, the piece is a modernist tone poem depicting the sights and sounds of Prague in eight movements. This critic is a fan of Mařatka, and Praharphona did not disappoint. In sustained string and wind textures, the music portrays moonlit nights and dark cobblestone streets, swelling to explosions of electric demagoguery, a raging river Vltava and a raucous pub.

Cool composer.
There is lively percussion throughout, not all of it orthodox – in one movement, the musicians stamp their feet. Mařatka likes to score for unusual instruments, and this piece employs several – a slide whistle, harmonica, even kazoos – to humorous effect. It’s hard to think of another contemporary composer who juxtaposes serious and whimsical elements so well.

The demands were no less strenuous on Boušková, who seldom played a standard harp line. More often she was plucking the strings pizzicato-style, or banging on them with the flat of her hand, or on the harp body for percussive effect. In the opening movement, she ran a plastic ruler along the strings to get a particularly sharp sound. Not all musicians can make this work – or even want to. But Boušková is a consummate pro who regularly toggles between the classical and modern repertoire, and it was clear she was having fun. By the end of the final movement, which finishes in an accompanying calligram with 13 slash marks (signifying beers), many of the other musicians onstage were smiling and laughing as well.

The program opened with Gounod’s Petite Symphonie for Winds, a delightful chamber work for a nine-piece oboe, clarinet, flute, bassoon and French horn ensemble. With nods to Mozart and Haydn, the piece establishes a basic symphonic framework in each of its four movements, then runs through fast-paced, colorful combinations of instruments and tones more typical of chamber music. Bright and catchy, it’s like pop music of the 1880s. The performance tailed off a bit at the end, but otherwise Hrůša drew a full, well-rounded sound from the group.

The evening closed with Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, typically a problematic piece that Hrůša handled with aplomb, emphasizing its lyrical qualities and lustrous tones. Shallow at first, the sound took on depth and dynamics as the piece unfolded, with fine contrasts of power and delicacy. The final movement may have been a bit too fast – some of the crispness and definition that characterized the earlier movements was lost. But overall, the piece offered an impressive demonstration of what a good conductor can do with just 42 instruments. Reputedly better orchestras that have appeared at the Rudolfinum in recent weeks with twice that number of players onstage were not nearly as sharp and clear.

In all, a nicely balanced program with something for every taste, intelligently assembled and smartly performed. And bold. After all, what other orchestra, especially in Prague, would open the season with kazoos in hand?

For a closer look at the Prague Philharmonia:

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