Wednesday, May 25, 2011


May 27 at 8

Boldly going where no violinist has gone before.

American violinist Robert McDuffie is nothing if not audacious.

When he was looking for a companion piece to The Four Seasons in 2000, he decided that American composer Philip Glass would be a perfect choice to write a contemporary version of Vivaldi’s Baroque classic. So he contacted Glass, who he barely knew, to pitch the project, telling him, “You’re the American Vivaldi.”

Luckily, he bit,” McDuffie said in a phone interview last week from Poznan, Poland. “I don’t know if he liked that I called him the American Vivaldi, or agreed with that. But he loved the idea, and cheerfully agreed to take on the project.”

It was another seven years before Glass could find the time to actually compose what became his second violin concerto, The American Seasons. McDuffie premiered it in tandem with The Four Seasons in Toronto in 2009, and has been on the road with the program ever since. He will play it at the Rudolfinum Friday night.

The premiere was in December, and by that time the following year, I had given about 40 performances of it,” McDuffie said. “It really turned out to be a big hit. Glass has his own following, which has helped – I can’t believe the number of pierced body parts I’ve seen in some places. But I find that traditional concertgoers also love the music.”

There are some connections between the pieces. Glass borrowed a few motifs as reference points, and as McDuffie noted, “Both of the composers use repeated bass notes, and both pieces have very seductive melodies up top.” But in almost every other respect, The American Seasons is a distinctly modern work.

I wanted it to be serious, but in a showbizzy way, with a catchy theme that would attract presenters,” McDuffie explained. “In that sense, it was a business decision. I wanted something thoughtful, but accessible. I also asked Glass to give me a – I don’t know what else to call it – a kick-ass, rock ’n’ roll ending. And he completely agreed with that.”

There were discussions on other points, like whether to base the music on text, as Vivaldi did with the original. The poetry of Alan Ginsberg was considered before the text idea was scrapped. McDuffie and Glass also talked about making the new work a multimedia piece, adding another dimension with, say, a lighting artist.

We went back and forth on that a lot,” McDuffie said. “Finally we decided that he would just write a piece that would stand on its own. It uses the same orchestration as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, except with a synthesizer replacing the harpsichord, to give it his trademark sound.

The only thing we couldn’t agree on what was to title the movements. His summer was my winter. So we finally decided, no titles – we’ll let the audience decide what season each movement is. Which is great, it brings the audience into the piece.”

While pairing a Baroque and modern work might be a clever marketing ploy, it presents a challenge for a serious musician. McDuffie is well-versed in the 20th-century American repertoire – he’s been lauded for his performances and recordings of Barber, Bernstein and Adams. But playing Baroque music properly is an entirely different discipline, and McDuffie admitted that he was lucky to have good teachers.

When I first started touring this program, I was very fortunate to be with one of the best Baroque orchestras in the world, the Venice Baroque Orchestra,” he said. “It was an amazing growing experience for me. I was playing Vivaldi, I guess you would say with an American approach, whatever that is. They of course have their own approach – it’s in their DNA. And it’s very energetic and vigorous. So I was able to lock into that, and benefit from their experience.”

In Prague, McDuffie will be backed by the Prague Philharmonia, a young orchestra with the flexibility and range to accommodate both Baroque and modern music. This will not be his first experience with a Czech ensemble. That occurred in 1982, when he was 23 years old and the Czech Philharmonic was touring the United States under the baton of the legendary Václav Neumann.

They were in Ames, Iowa, and needed someone to play Dvořák’s violin concerto,” McDuffie recalled. I had never played it. But my manager lied, and said I had played it dozens of times. The night before the concert, I was still learning and memorizing the piece. I remember asking God, why am I a violinist? I felt like I was walking on a high wire without a net.

I don’t remember much about the performance, it’s a blur now. I didn’t embarrass myself. Still, it was a huge risk.

Fortunately, Prague Spring organizers have taken the risk out of this appearance.

They asked me to switch the order,” McDuffie confided. “Usually I play Vivaldi first, and Glass second. In Prague, I’ll play Glass first, then Vivaldi. It’s okay with me, I trust the Prague Spring people. I’m sure they know they know their audience.”

Indeed they do.

For more on Robert McDuffie:

Saturday, May 21, 2011


O2 Arena
May 18
Obecní dům
May 20

A refined sound in a distinctly unrefined space.

Had enough of Mahler yet? At this point in the extended two-year commemoration of the composer’s birth and death, there seems little left to discover. But even for jaded listeners, a pair of Prague Spring concerts this past week offered something special: An opportunity to compare how European and American orchestras approach Mahler’s towering symphonies.

Getting to the first performance, at O2 Arena on Wednesday, required going through a metal detector and airport-style frisking. So it was a pleasant surprise to find a dignified atmosphere inside, with low lighting and enormous black drapes framing a huge stage erected along one side of the floor. It was quickly filled by two orchestras – the Czech Philharmonic and NDR Symphony Orchestra Hamburg – and seven singers on a raised dais. Above them, six German and Czech choirs filled several sections of seats normally packed with hockey fans.

The task of weaving all this into a credible “Symphony of a Thousand” (No. 8) fell to Christoph Eschenbach, whose 60-year career in classical music spans two continents and includes leading posts at half a dozen major orchestras. Visually, it was like watching a pygmy trying to wrestle an elephant into submission. Musically, it was sublime, with Eschenbach crafting a surprisingly nuanced performance with outstanding clarity, balance and sensitivity, particularly in the vocal and choral passages of the second half, as love triumphs and Faust’s soul ascends to heaven.

Given all the time he’s spent in America, Eschenbach might not be the ideal exemplar of the European style. But his treatment certainly had the grandeur and stately pacing of the European Mahler, with a monolithic orchestral sound that left plenty of space and accommodation for the soloists, choral passages that swelled, broke and receded like ocean waves, and an earth-shaking finish. As much as any Beethoven or Wagner work composed decades earlier, it was a grand and eloquent statement of Romantic ideals and spiritual aspirations.

And surprisingly, the venue helped. When the Czech National Symphony Orchestra mounted a production of No. 8 at Obecní dům in January, it sounded constrained, almost preposterously disproportionate not just to the space, but the very idea of a symphony. At the arena, where the music had room to expand and breathe, it was breathtaking in its scope and impact, like an enormous mosaic that comes into focus only at the proper distance. And the real stars of the show may have been the sound engineers, who miked the orchestra and the soloists (though not the choirs) and blended it all so well that individual voices and instruments were exceptionally clear, even on the far side of the arena.

New World sensibilities.
Back at Obecní dům two nights later, it was immediately clear that an American orchestra was onstage, with the musicians in their seats tuning up as the audience filled Smetana Hall. An orchestra director in Prague once suggested that his musicians follow that protocol, and they didn’t much like it, preferring to walk onstage to applause after the audience is seated. It’s a minor ego exercise, and perhaps a matter of tradition. But the atmosphere is strikingly different when the musicians are already onstage, charging the air with anticipation.

This was the third Prague Spring appearance for the San Francisco Symphony, and with Michael Tilson Thomas at the podium, the orchestra only seems to get better. From the opening notes of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the music throbbed with energy and vitality. Even the softer string and woodwind passages were remarkably robust, losing none of the internal dynamics and vivid colors that characterized the entire piece. Overall the sound was polished and bright, with a much higher gloss than one typically hears in Europe.

The performance never lost its Old World grounding, notable especially in the dances of the second and third movements. But there were some distinctly modern touches, with Tilson Thomas emphasizing deep bass lines and adding occasional reverb effects. He showed himself to be a master technician, capable of taking the sound from a tumultuous explosion down to a bare whisper with fingertip control. Unlike many European conductors who start at full volume, he also showed restraint, building the sound carefully to give the late orchestral outbursts a much smarter and cleaner impact.

One could characterize his orchestra’s sound as unremittingly bright – at least by European standards. But as the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno joined in for the final movement, there was no question that two world-class ensembles had joined to create a thrilling synthesis, the conclusion of which brought a full house to its feet. In a charming display of international bonhomie, both the choir and the orchestra made a point of applauding each other during the three curtain calls.

This is what Prague Spring does best – bring together world-class talent in a framework that only a prestigious international festival can provide. And both Eschenbach and Tilson Thomas offered reminders that, even amid a glut of anniversary events, there is always more to hear and learn from a master like Mahler.

Michael Tilson Thomas talks about Mahler:

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Prague Conservatoire Concert Hall
May 17

Adding aural luster to the new concert hall.

Today marks the 27th anniversary of Amadinda’s first performance in Prague, an occasion the ensemble celebrated with a bravura performance last night at the Conservatoire’s new concert hall. Along with the group’s unique synthesis of primal rhythms and modern music, the program offered a reminder of Amadinda’s impressive accomplishments and standing in the global music community.

Two traditional pieces provided bookends for the concert. The first was the group’s namesake – Amadinda, a sampling of Ugandan music performed on an instrument of the same name, a twelve-key “log xylophone.” The piece is a rapid-fire tattoo of polyrhythms, laid down last night by three players: Amadinda founder and artistic director Zoltán Rácz; founding member Zoltán Váczi; and percussionist and composer Aurél Holló, who joined the group in 1991. Holló provided the rhythm foundation in a number of the songs, and he set a blistering pace for the closing piece, Otea, a wild taste of Tahitian dance music that the players embellished with some lively growling and yelling.

The second piece was an acknowledged masterwork, John Cage’s Third Construction. Composed in 1941, it’s a teeth-rattling ride with a rotating rhythmic structure played on an unorthodox set of instruments that includes tin cans, metal bowls, a wooden box, a conch shell, an Aztec teponaztli (a type of slit drum), a quijada (donkey jawbone) and a drum roar (a metal wire suspended from a drum’s center that produces a deep metallic groan). The clockwork precision of the performance was mesmerizing; many viewers in the hall sat transfixed, some with their mouths open in astonishment at the sheer energy exploding from the stage.

The first half concluded with Gamelan-bound, a bright, upbeat piece by Holló. The title is a reference to a type of traditional Indonesian music that relies heavily on drums, gongs, metallophones and xylophones. Holló was even more inventive, adding objects like a bike horn, Jew’s harp, whistles and hollow plastic tubes (in Day-Glo colors) to infuse the complex rhythms with a playful sense of free-spirited experimentation.

A perfect vocal fit.
The second half of the performance featured two pieces written expressly for the ensemble. The first, Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedűvel (With Pipes, Drums, Fiddles), was composed by György Ligeti in 2000 for Amadinda and Hungarian mezzo-soprano Katalin Károlyi. A cycle of seven songs with text from the works of Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres, the piece has extreme swings of mood and tone, from gently sweet to bitingly sarcastic. Károlyi was more than impressive handling the tough vocal demands, slipping seamlessly in and out of different characters, caressing some lines while biting off others. Her clear voice and smart diction and intonation are an ideal fit with the ensemble, which was also dazzling, with four players juggling more than 70 different instruments.

Steve Reich composed the Mallet Quartet for Amadinda in 2009. Reminiscent of many of his earlier minimalist works, it’s a three-movement piece for two vibraphones and two marimbas, with distinct strains of progressive American jazz – or is it that contemporary jazz players have been influenced by Reich? Either way, the players did a fine job of handling the pulsing rhythms and delicate interlocking melody lines, though the piece never developed the electricity that characterizes Reich’s best work. The same was true of the encore, Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood, a 1973 composition for five pair of tuned claves. It was sharp and note-perfect, but didn’t pack much of a punch.

No matter; this was a world-class ensemble marking a significant moment, not only in its own history and development, but for the venue. The new Conservatoire hall, opened just two months ago, is a beauty, a 333-seat gem with clean stylistic lines and tight, dynamic acoustics. How string and horn ensembles will sound remains to be seen (and heard), but the range and resonance last night was superb – sharp without being harsh, full on the deep end and crystal-clear on the high end. Initially, the idea of shoehorning a small hall into the Conservatoire courtyard seemed a thoughtless bit of surgery. But the result is a neat fit and a fine concert facility that should fill an important niche in Prague.

The only down note was the number of empty seats in the hall. Modern music is never an easy sell in Prague, so it was no surprise that the audience was predominantly local music cognoscenti, like composers Martin Smolka and Michal Nejtek. But for a group of Amadinda’s caliber not to fill a small hall in this city is embarrassing, to say the least. Kudos to Prague Spring organizers for being willing to take a risk. And to local audiences, a clang of metal percussion and a bit of advice: Wake up!

For more on Amadinda:

To see Amadinda performances on YouTube:

Saturday, May 14, 2011


French Institute
May 11, 12 & 13

A rare public appearance by Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer at a screening of his films on Wednesday night was a sure sign that something special was in the offing. By the end of the evening it was clear what had drawn him out: a sophisticated synthesis of two art forms to create a riveting hybrid, an exploration of the filmmaker’s ideas and obsessions through music, movement, sound and imagery.

The core of the program was five short films by Švankmajer, ranging from lesser-known early works like Tichý týden v domě (A Quiet Week at Home) to popular pieces like Možnosti dialogu (Dimensions of Dialogue) and Tma, Světlo, Tma (Darkness, Light, Darkness, pictured above). French composer François Sarhan, a regular visitor to Prague and longtime Švankmajer fan, wrote what he calls a “philosophical frame” – incidental music for the films, and physical compositions linking them that employed text from Švankmajer’s “Decalogue,” his 10 rules for filmmaking.

Writing soundtrack music is not so interesting,” Sarhan said after the premiere performance. “My idea was to develop layers of music, text and sound, and use them in different positions and combinations, to create something new. The evening should be organic and didactic – in a Švankmajer way.”

That it was. A five-piece ensemble (two violins, bass clarinet, keyboard and percussion) played the incidental music, creating whimsical, eerie or absurdist atmospherics to match the visuals. The musicians also performed the decalogues, demanding physical works that called for them to pound their chests or slap each other while verbally slicing and dicing Švankmajer’s text.

Two sound effects artists added an air of hyperrealism to the films with live re-creations of grass scrunching, keys turning, doors opening and coins dropping. These were blended seamlessly with a variety of recorded sounds – traffic, birds singing, a vocal track during Možnosti dialogu.  

With the music embellishing and punctuating the parade of animated body parts, exploding food and clay couplings onscreen, the overall effect was mesmerizing. It was like an entirely new dimension had been added to the films, deepening and expanding Švankmajer’s ideas while preserving their integrity and his unique brand of surreal humor.

The program got better with successive performances, and there is talk of taking it to the Karlovy Vary film festival. It certainly deserves a larger audience. The caliber of the work is first-rate; even fans already familiar with Švankmajer’s work will find something fresh in it. And the performers were outstanding. “I was very impressed with them,” Sarhan said.

Congratulations are also in order for Didier Montaigné, the former director of the French Institute, who now runs the cultural atelier KAIROS, which produced Magnetic Fields. It’s the kind of arts event sadly lacking in Prague these days – inventive, intelligent and energizing. The common complaint is that there’s no money for original programming – which is true. But with a little imagination and a lot of hard work, it’s amazing what can be done.

For photos of the event (courtesy of Ondřej Melecký):

For more on François Sarhan:

And one of his physical compositions:

Tma, Světlo, Tma and other Švankmajer works on YouTube:

Monday, May 9, 2011


Estates Theater
May 7

Kateřina Kněžíková gets some help with the high notes.

Even before the curtain opens, it’s clear that the National Theater’s new Die Entführung aus dem Serail is going to be one of those tricked-up affairs. As conductor Tomáš Netopil set himself to start the overture of Saturday night’s premiere, a junior Mozart – a boy of 9 or 10 in a period costume and powdered wig – popped out to the front of the stage, and mimicked Netopil’s movements for about 30 bars. He then dashed behind a scrim, where a puzzling dance-and-rejection sequence played out between shadowy figures for the rest of the overture.

That set the tone for a generally disappointing evening, with a good set of singers and a strong orchestral performance undercut by a cluttered, confusing production. Belgian director Joël Lauwers has transposed an exotic romantic comedy from a Turkish harem to a French drawing room, where children run on and off the stage all night for no apparent reason, the Pasha shuffles and growls like Brando in The Godfather, and the characters seem caught in a state of existential despair rather than emotional longing. It has its moments, but few of them bear any relation to Mozart’s 1782 German singspiel.

The story utilizes a popular theatrical theme of the period, the rescue of a beautiful European woman from her Turkish abductors. Konstanze and her maid Blonde are being held in the palace of Pasha Selim, along with Blonde’s boyfriend Pedrillo. Selim is pressuring Konstanze to give in to his amorous desires or die, while the evil seraglio (harem) overseer Osmin has similar designs on Blonde. The opera opens with the arrival of Konstanze’s lover Belmonte, and follows his and Pedrillo’s often-fumbling attempts to save their women, with the foursome finally saved by an improbable plot twist in the final scene.

This is the stuff of light comedy, with even the intimidating Osmin painted in broad, humorous strokes. Rendering it that way is not easy; the format of the singspiel dictates extended arias and ensemble pieces strung together by straight dialogue (the Pasha is a strictly spoken part), making comic timing difficult. Instead of trying to pick up the pace, Lauwers breaks it up even more with long silent stretches and tangential action and characters, making it impossible to establish a rhythm. Two set pieces drew some laughs – Osmin literally squeezing some high notes out of Blonde during a massage, and Pedrillo (Jaroslav Březina) making full use of his ample stomach in a drunken dance with Osmin. Otherwise, the audience was dead quiet for most of the evening.

Lauwers also drains the life out of his characters. Belmonte and Pedrillo are sniveling hand-wringers who cower and crawl on the floor, whipped and abused by Osmin, who seems to have a taste for S&M. They are not so much inept as emasculated. So is the Pasha for that matter, despite the heavyweight casting of German actor Markus Boysen in the role. He glowers and threatens but does his begging on his back, like a whimpering dog. Osmin has been changed into a crotchety old bookkeeper with a cane and a bad comb-over, cunning but ridiculously out of place.

The women fare better, but not by much. Though she has some heartbreaking arias, it’s impossible to develop any sympathy for Konstanze, whom Lauwers portrays as rejecting the Pasha one moment, then coming on to him the next. A dream sequence (or was it?) of the two of them in bed together muddles matters even further. The only character to survive intact at the premiere was Blonde, thanks to fine work by house regular Kateřina Kněžíková, who has developed into a superb comedic actress/singer.

She and Simona Houda-Šaturová, who sings Konstanze, make the opera worth seeing despite its flaws. Houda-Šaturová’s forte is not the intricate coloratura lines that Mozart originally wrote for his friend Caterina Cavalieri, but her round, lustrous soprano is very well-suited to the emotional demands of the role, especially the two extended arias in Act II. Tenors Aleš Briscein (Belmonte) and Jaroslav Březina held their own at the premiere, but the biggest hand of the night went to Jan Šťáva, whose commanding bass and villainous swagger made for an entertaining Osmin.

The orchestra, which always sounds good when Netopil is at the podium, also drew enthusiastic applause. Too bad the audience never got to hear one of the more interesting voices on the stage – that of Juwana Jenkins, a fiery local blues singer who added a smoldering sensual presence to Act II in the silent role of a slave attendant in the spa.

Every director has a right to put his own stamp on a production, but there’s not much coherence in this one – or respect. When he was composing Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Mozart labored mightily to put a pivotal ensemble scene at the end of Act II, where it would have the greatest dramatic and musical impact. This production thoughtlessly cuts Act II in half, dropping an intermission in the middle of it and burying the ensemble piece in the second half of the performance. That’s an abuse of dramatic license in any century.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


May 6

Bringing new dimensions to a popular standard.

This music is in their blood, which makes it extremely interesting.”

Maestro Manfred Honeck was talking over lunch yesterday about the challenge of leading the Czech Philharmonic in Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” Arguably, only Smetana’s Má vlast occupies a more sacred place in the Czech musical canon. So even Honeck, the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, approaches a performance of Dvořák’s Ninth gingerly.

Which is not to say that he’s afraid to put his own stamp on it. Raised and trained in Austria, he hears the “rustic waltz” roots of the music more than most conductors, and is not shy about emphasizing them. “The goal for me is to make this music special by utilizing all the elements from our common Czech and Austrian traditions,” he said.

But the first task on last night’s program was to lift a pair of heavyweight Wagner selections: the overture to Lohengrin, and the funeral march from Götterdämmerung. The usual approach with Wagner is to hammer the audience with explosions of sound, even in solemn works like these. But Honeck started soft and slow and stayed in that vein, layering the music and building it to majestic rather than stunning proportions. The power was there, but with an intensity that emerged organically rather than in slashes and thrusts.

In Lohengrin, Honeck’s measured tempo anchored a fine gradation of sound from pianissimo to fortissimo, and back again. The same understated approach created powerful atmospherics for Siegfried’s funeral march, strong without being overbearing. Honeck embellished the sound with great dark colors from the horns.

The jump to 20th-century America for the second piece, Barber’s Concerto for violin and orchestra (Opus 14), was a bit jarring and not entirely successful. Individual sections were strong, and in the second movement, Honeck offered one of the strongest emotional statements of the evening. But overall, the concerto sounded more like 19th-century Europe, flavored with inventive turns in the woodwinds. Some of the energy that emerged late might have benefited the entire piece.

A major talent in the making.
The main point of interest was the soloist, Josef Špaček. At the tender age of 25, he has a string of international competition awards longer than his arm, and a diploma from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Špaček is currently continuing his studies at the Juilliard School in New York, where his teachers include Itzhak Perlman. His sound reflects the Ivan Galamian/Dorothy DeLay style of playing – clear and clean, with perfect pitch and a high degree of technical skill. It also helps that Špaček plays an instrument on loan from Juilliard, a 1693 violin made in the Stradivarius workshop.

But that takes nothing away from Špaček, who breezed his way through the Barber concerto, running through the many complicated lines with impressive finesse. Because of his age, the emotional depth isn’t there yet. And his encore, a Bach partita, was flat. But this is clearly a young man with prodigious talent and tremendous potential, which he will have a chance to develop in his role as a concertmaster with the Czech Philharmonic next season.

As for the Dvořák, Honeck made good on his promise, reaching deep for some rhythms not usually heard in the symphony. The first movement in particular had some pauses and beats reminiscent of peasant dances, which Honeck varied nicely in different sections of the orchestra. And the second movement was as tender as this reviewer has ever heard. The clarity of the sound started to muddy in the third and fourth movements, the latter of which raced uptempo. But the overall effect was very satisfying, a distinctly different approach to a standard of the orchestral repertoire that brought to mind one of Honeck’s comments earlier in the day: “Some of the older musicians said to me after rehearsal, ʻThat’s the way we used to play it.’”

The only sour note of the evening was the audience. The problem with popular works like Dvořák’s Ninth is that they tend to draw tourist crowds – not foreigners, but people who don’t normally attend classical concerts, and don’t know how to behave. Long ago, this reviewer grew inured to the problem, which can ruin an otherwise enjoyable evening. But last night it was really too much: talking, swigging bottled water and taking mobile phone pictures during the performance, and clapping after every movement, like children. Along with being rude and annoying, it made the enthusiastic applause at the end of the concert ring hollow. Really, how would that audience know the difference between a good and bad concert?

But that’s no reflection on Honeck and the Czech Philharmonic, who turned in a fine evening’s work and a strong finish to the orchestra’s regular concert season.

For more on Manfred Honeck, now music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra:

And for a closer look at Josef Špaček:

Thursday, May 5, 2011


May 4

The Prague Philharmonia is the most malleable orchestra in town. While the city’s older, more established ensembles have developed trademark sounds, the Philharmonia, just 18 years old and staffed with talented young players, is still finding its voice. So it tends to reflect the strengths and weaknesses of its conductors more than most orchestras.

A conductor with class.
That worked to good advantage last night, with Petr Altrichter at the podium. Currently the principal guest conductor of the Brno Philharmonic and a frequent visitor to Prague stages, Altrichter has a distinguished pedigree that includes training under the legendary Václav Neumann at the Czech Philharmonic. He is also a gracious nurturer of young talent, literally stepping aside to put the spotlight on the players and let them bask in the applause, and embracing – again, literally – soloists like Jan Simon, who played Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

The opening piece was by Iša Krejčí, a 20th-century Czech composer who worked in a neoclassical vein and is known for the optimistic, playful qualities of his music. His Serenade for Orchestra, completed in 1950, is more like a bracing wake-up call, filled with swirling flights of fancy, inventive passages for strings and the pulse and rhythms of modern life. Altrichter came at it full-steam from the opening bars, with energetic bursts of intensity tempered by fine, even delicate work with the woodwinds and strings. In particular, he showed great skill handling contrasting string melodies in the second movement. After a snappy “cha-cha-cha” ending, even the players were applauding the conductor.

Altrichter’s orchestral work was also the most interesting part of the Liszt concerto. He might be criticized for keeping the ensemble pitched to high drama and full volume for what should be a soloist showcase, but for this reviewer, the problem lay more with Simon, a talented technician who did not show much flair. His Liszt was proficient but flat, lacking any of the interpretation lighting up the orchestra behind him. At times, not only the volume but the style of the orchestra completely swallowed Simon’s playing.

Not much style.
And his choice of an encore was puzzling: Chopin’s Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No. 1. A beautiful but in some ways ponderous piece heavy with grief, it’s short on technical demands and long on expression, which is not the pianist’s strong suit – or at least, wasn’t last night. There’s no arguing with Simon’s credentials; he is a Prague Spring laureate and the winner of a national Chopin competition. But particularly in contrast to the fire of Atrichter’s energetic orchestra, his playing never developed any feeling or depth.

The final work, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s Symphony No. 5, gave Altrichter an opportunity to bring all his skills to the fore. He pumped the piece full of energy, keeping it moving along briskly without losing any balance or control. In the second movement, the scherzo, he showed that he can have a light touch when the material calls for it, trading volume for sensitivity. And in the closing coda, Altrichter offered a reminder that he can get a very serious statement from a small number of horns when he needs it.

In some ways, that was the theme of the entire evening: Less is more. With only 50 pieces, the Philharmonia took up about two-thirds of the stage space that most orchestras playing at the Rudolfinum occupy. But it gave away nothing in impact or drama, rendering vivid colors throughout the entire evening. After seeing Altrichter conduct Prague’s larger orchestras, this was like watching him take a high-performance sports car for a ride. It handled smoothly, responded beautifully and sounded every bit as good as its Cadillac counterparts.

And a brief history of the orchestra: