|Conductor Kukal is also a noted composer and violinist.|
Good to see the Hradec Králové Philharmonic in town for a Twelfth Night concert, the penultimate performance of the České Doteky Hudby (Czech Touches of Music) festival. The orchestra, one of many regional ensembles in the Czech Republic, may be best-known for its forays into modern music. In November, it staged a three-day tribute to Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, who promised to attend but did not. That would be bold programming in any city.
For the festival, the orchestra showed a decidedly different profile, opening the festivities at Prague Castle on Dec. 16 with the greatest hits of Pink Floyd – yes, the psychedelic rock band. “We know that when we want to earn money, we have to do these kind of concerts,” orchestra manager Marcela Jakubská sighed at the time. But itʼs worth noting that every time the orchestra performs the Pink Floyd program, it sells out.
Art trumped commerce at the Twelfth Night concert, more or less. The program was designed to attract the tourist crowd that made up the bulk of the audience: Bach and Mozart concertos, Tchaikovskyʼs familiar Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. But it also featured two smart Czech selections, Josef Foersterʼs Three Kings melodrama (1920) and Josef Sukʼs Fantasy in G minor for violin and orchestra (1902). And the soloists included two internationally famous names, Spanish flute player Claudi Arimany and Czech harp player Kateřina Englichová.
The program opened with Bachʼs Brandenberg Concerto No. 4, a piece perhaps best reserved for a smaller ensemble in a more intimate setting. Conductor Ondřej Kukal kept the orchestra muted for the three soloists -- Arimany and two Czech players, flutist Miroslav Matějka and violinist Martina Bačová. The flutes were competent through largely indistinguishable, while Bačová seemed out of her element, like a student turned loose among adults. She is a such a statuesque beauty, though, no one appeared to notice.
Foersterʼs Three Kings, with recitation by Alfred Strejček, was a delight, and all too brief. In just a few minutes, Kukal managed to invoke a festive mood with regal horns and bright colors. Unabashedly Romantic, Three Kings is just one section of a four-part melodrama, and its joyful spirit and engaging melodies left this critic wishing the other three sections had been on the program instead of the usual tourist fare.
However, the Mozart Concerto in C major for flute, harp and orchestra (K. 297c) afforded an opportunity to see Arimany and Englichová play together, which was a treat. Both are precise musicians who manage to combine technical expertise with vibrant expression, and they obviously enjoyed working together. The orchestra never quite achieved the electric level that characterizes good Mozart, but the soloists were excellent.
A full version of the ensemble sounded better after intermission with Sukʼs Fantasy for violin and orchestra in G minor. The composer, the grandfather of the recently deceased Czech violinist of the same name, did some interesting work that is not often heard outside the Czech lands. This piece, a skillful swirl of shifting melodies, moods and tempos, would stand on its own in any context. Kukal had a great feel for it, coaxing some fine textures from the strings and just the right pop from the percussionists. And Bačová, in another dazzling gown, sounded much better. Her playing is not the caliber of a concert soloist, but itʼs good to see young talent being given a chance to develop.
Kukal also did a fine job with the concluding Tchaikovsky, keeping the sentimentality in check and producing a nicely balanced sound with notable transparency and range. It lacked a crisp edge, even becoming ragged at times. But Kukal brought out the contrasting undercurrents of the music, which disappear in some interpretations. And he demurred during the applause, graciously pointing to the popular, timeless score.
The half-full hall suggested that Jakubská knows her business – in purely monetary terms, pop music outperforms the classics. But as a holiday celebration and elegant way to start the new year, this concert was a gem.
For more on the Hradec Králové Philharmonic: http://www.fhk.cz/eng/