Thursday, January 13, 2011


Obecní dům
January 12

A superlative stand-in.
Opportunities to hear the complete score of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé don’t come along very often, and last night’s performance by the Prague Symphony Orchestra included a tantalizing hitch: a substitute conductor. With Spanish maestro Juanjo Mena out sick, Wilson Hermanto, an up-and-coming Indonesian-American, was given the baton and a daunting challenge. Nearly an hour in length, Ravel’s “choreographic symphony” is an incredibly complex work that demands a large orchestra, full mixed choir and considerable finesse at the podium. Hermanto, 38, responded with a display of poise and talent well beyond his years.

Commissioned by the legendary Sergei Diaghilev for his Ballets Russe,
Daphnis et Chloé barely weathered the storms besieging the project in 1912, which included an argumentative choreographer, temperamental dancers and an overly ambitious schedule. The competition was pretty stiff, too – the company was simultaneously rehearsing Debussy’s L’Apres Midi d’un Faun, and had recently premiered Stravinsky’s groundbreaking works The Firebird and Petrushka. After a lackluster premiere of Daphnis et Chloé, Ravel was considered lucky to pull two suites from it that went into the symphonic repertoire.

A century later, the full ballet is considered Ravel’s masterwork. A sprawling piece held together by several main motifs, it ranges from wild dance sequences to muted passages that would fit neatly into a tone poem. The instrumentation, time signatures, phrasing and melody lines change so often, and so inventively, that one never knows what is coming next. So expressive is the score that dancing seems almost superfluous; in capable hands, the music itself leaps, writhes and pirouettes across the stage.

Hermanto showed that facility last night, handling the complicated orchestration, changes in mood and tone and many breaks with smooth precision. Most impressive was his control. Particularly in the more boisterous dance sequences, the piece can easily run away. Hermanto anchored it with a steady tempo throughout, and kept the sound in balance on both the high and low ends, capping the brass and percussion explosions, and rendering soft string and vocal passages with radiance and texture. That level of fluency with 20th-century music is uncommon even among more accomplished conductors. Evidently Hermanto absorbed his lessons well in the time that he spent under the tutelage of Pierre Boulez.

Just holding together all the disparate elements of Daphnis et Chloé is a challenge, and in that regard a nod should be given to the musicians and singers. The Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno turned in another smart, nuanced performance, adding vivid colors with shimmering, wordless vocals. And the orchestra was clearly eager to support Hermanto, playing with enthusiasm and flair. Czech orchestras aren’t always welcoming to their guests – in November, the Czech Philharmonic sent an unprepared soloist packing after one rehearsal. But last night was a very good matchup of a still-developing conductor with an ensemble willing to bend a bit and be accommodating.

Prague's popular virtuoso.
The musicians were also notably supportive of the soloist in the opening piece, Richard Strauss’ Concerto for French horn and orchestra No. 1 in E flat major. Radek Baborák, who is spending the 2010-11 season as artist-in-residence with the Prague Symphony Orchestra, is a world-class talent on his instrument with a big local fan base. Many of his admirers were at last night’s concert, calling Baborák out for two encores after a very polished performance of the concerto.

Strauss was only 18 when he wrote the piece, which is strikingly bright and buoyant compared to much of his later work. There’s not much for the orchestra to do, other than provide an upbeat backdrop. But the players were happy to showcase Baborák, who infused his usual rich, round tone with a stirring ring of nobility. Some of the subtleties of his playing were lost in the orchestral passages, so it was a treat when he did a solo excerpt from the concerto for his first encore. That gave the audience an opportunity to appreciate the fine techniques and full flavor of virtuoso playing.

Hats off to the orchestra administrators for an evening of great programming. And here’s hoping we haven’t seen the last of the promising Mr. Hermanto.

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