“When you go to hear an orchestra, what you’re really going to hear is that night’s conductor.”
The worldly Canadian conductor Kerry Stratton once passed on that bit of wisdom to this critic, and nearly every concert proves him right. The strengths, weaknesses, styles and predilections that each conductor brings to the podium are cast in particularly high relief in Prague, a city with five working orchestras and a nonstop parade of local and visiting maestros. Two recent appearances offered instructive contrasts from the East.
On Friday night, Japanese conductor Kazushi Ono led the Czech Philharmonic in a program of Dvořák and Rimsky-Korsakov. It’s a bit of a misnomer to characterize Ono as Japanese. Though he was born and trained in Tokyo, much of his work has been in the West, with orchestras and opera houses in the UK, Germany, Belgium and France, where he is currently Principal Conductor of the Opéra de Lyon. He is especially noted for his work on operas by a wide range of composers – Stravinsky, Strauss, Shostakovich and Wagner, including a complete “Ring” cycle – and world premieres of new operas.
Unfortunately, not much of that expertise was in evidence at his Prague appearance. The opening piece, Dvořák’s symphonic poem The Water Sprite, was notably flat and uninspired. Its dramatic contrasts remained one-dimensional throughout, never developing any color or flair. And some of the notes were so labored as to sound almost atonal. The second selection, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Fairy Tale, Op. 29, picked up some dynamics and interesting tones in the strings and brass, though nowhere near what the piece offers in drama, verve and flat-out thrills. It was a credible reading, but largely lackluster.
Scheherezade sounded better in the second half, thanks mostly to some fine work by first violinist Irena Herajnová and harpist Barbara Pazourová. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Arabian fantasy is so inherently rich and colorful, and his instrumentation so fascinating to watch, that it’s hard not to do a crowd-pleasing performance. This one was ragged around the edges, more lively and engaging than the first half, but certainly not the caliber one expects of the Czech Philharmonic.
Since a number of the orchestra’s front-line players were not performing on Friday, it’s tempting to say that Ono did the best he could with the Czech Philharmonic B team. But that didn’t seem to be the problem. By the end of the evening, the impression Ono gave was of a man trying to drive a Cadillac who is used to being behind the wheel of a Buick.
On the same podium two nights later, Russian conductor and violinist Vladimir Spivakov gave exactly the opposite impression – of a musician with a strong, distinctive voice that comes through clearly even when he’s leading a relatively junior ensemble like the Prague Philharmonia. Currently Music Director and Principal Conductor of the National Philharmonic of Russia and the Moscow Virtuosi chamber orchestra, which he co-founded in 1979, Spivakov has also been a noted violin soloist for nearly 40 years, playing with major orchestras on stages from Cleveland to Vienna. His many other distinctions are too numerous to list here, though it’s worth noting that Spivakov is a celebrated humanitarian off the stage, working chiefly through an eponymous international charity that he established in 1994.
The two Mozart pieces that comprised the first half of Sunday’s concert – the overture to La clemenza di Tito, and the Violin Concerto No. 2 – were stately, measured affairs, very different from the typically bright, even sprightly interpretations usually heard in Central Europe. Dusky in tone and more cerebral than one normally expects from Mozart, both works had a smooth elegance, mirroring Spivakov’s motions at the podium, which were technically impeccable and remarkably fluid.
As for the question of how one conducts a chamber orchestra and plays a Mozart violin solo at the same time, the answer in Spivakov’s case is, very well. He almost made it look easy, playing with a sweet, soulful sound that gave away nothing in intelligence while maintaining lush accompaniment with occasional turns and gestures to the orchestra. Even the visual aesthetics were pleasing, with Spivakov playing in the classic posture, tall and upright with his shoulders back, right foot slightly forward as he stepped into the more intricate passages. After he finished, even the musicians behind him were applauding.
If there was not much new in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in the second half, there were nonetheless some impressive elements: deep internal dynamics on the order of a large symphony orchestra, lustrous woodwinds, finely articulated strings and a masterful tempo that only got away in the final movement. There was an unstated bit of humor in the finale, as Spivakov seemed to be challenging the players to keep up with the sudden accelerated pace. Not everyone could, but the overall effect was invigorating.
All of which was a good warm-up for Prague Spring, which starts on Saturday with another Russian, Vasily Petrenko, conducting the Czech Philharmonic in the traditional opening performance of Smetana’s Má vlast. Conductors from seven other countries will follow, offering more lessons in Stratton’s maxim and a world of great music.
For more on Kazushi Ono: http://www.icartists.co.uk/artists/kazushi-ono
For more on Vladimir Spivakov: www.vladimirspivakov.com
Photos: Ono by Martin Divišek; Spivakov by Valery Plotnikov