Wednesday, February 8, 2012


February 3

A superb showing from homegrown talent.

Typically, the conductor is the star of the show at classical music concerts. And Ion Marin certainly looks the part – disarmingly handsome, with a full mane of glossy black rock-star hair. But he was outshone on Friday night by two very good soloists, French horn player Radek Baborák and violinist Dalibor Karvay.

Though Baborák is nine years older than Karvay, the two men have similar backgrounds. They were both born in what was then Czechoslovakia – Baborák in Pardubice in 1976, Karvay in Vrútky in 1985 – and showed major talent at an early age. Karvay started playing when he was three, gave his first concert at the age of seven, won his first competition a year later and released his first CD when he was eleven. Baborák picked up the French horn when he was eight, and won his first competition at twelve.

Baborák has had the more impressive career, holding seats or soloist positions with the Czech Philharmonic, Munich Philharmonic, Bamberg Symphony and Berlin Philharmonic. Karvay has remained an independent soloist while continuing his studies at the Vienna Conservatory, racking up more competition awards and playing with orchestras throughout Europe.

Lion-maned Marin.
Marin, who defected from his native Romania in 1986 and now lives in Switzerland, also has a five-star resumé. Along with conducting orchestras in Vienna, Berlin, London, Paris and Philadelphia, to name just a few, he is an accomplished opera conductor who has led new productions at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, the San Francisco Opera and the Met in New York. He has worked with a long list of famous soloists, singers and directors, and been nominated for three Grammy awards.

Still, his conducting can fall flat – or at least it did on Friday night. The opening piece, Wagnerʼs overture to Rienzi, was competent but lacked depth. More cerebral than Romantic, Marinʼs treatment captured the full dimensions and dynamics of the music without generating any passion. The brass sounded particularly good in an otherwise pro forma performance that snapped the audience to attention with a flamboyant finish.

Baborák has been on a Mozart tear lately, conducting and soloing in the National Theaterʼs annual Mozart Birthday Concert on Jan. 27. This performance of his Concerto for French horn and orchestra No. 4 showed why. While the orchestra sounded thick and heavy, Baborák put a golden burnish on the music with light, rounded tones. The extended solo in the first movement was a tour de force of virtuoso musicianship, with an astonishing range of sounds and playful expression demonstrating Baborákʼs complete mastery of his instrument. His encore was even better, an Alpine reverie (in honor of Marin) that showcased the full sonic possibilities of the French horn – played sans valves!

Karvay joined him after intermission for Brahmsʼ Trio in E flat major Op. 40 (arranged for French horn, violin and orchestra), far and away the best piece of the evening. In contrast to the lackluster first half, Marin infused the music with drama and feeling, creating a colorful palette of moods, tones and textures for the soloists to work against. Baborák stepped back to give some space to Karvay, whose regal bearing and rich, emotional sound would befit a gypsy king. Unfortunately, the balance was not good, with the orchestra drowning out entire passages of Karvayʼs solos, and much of the subtlety of his playing. But the third movement included a number of solos and duets, and once Baborák and Karvay hit stride playing together, the effect was magical.

The final piece, Brahmsʼ Variations in B flat major on a theme by Haydn, fell back into the sleepy mode of the first half – adequate, but not particularly fresh or exciting. The occasional flashes of life and color were achieved mostly by cranking up the volume. As he did for most of the evening, Marin plodded his way through the piece, then revved the orchestra up for a big, dramatic finish that left the audience (if not the critics) energized and applauding.

Still, no complaints. The Czech Philharmonic is a world-class orchestra no matter who is conducting, a cultural gem that never loses its luster. And Baborák and Karvay offered a bracing reminder that the best players in Central Europe can hold their own with any in the world.

For more on

Radek Baborák:

Photos courtesy of the Czech Philharmonic

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