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:

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