Regional Music Preview: THE CZECH PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA (Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa)

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by Tony Frankel on October 29, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


Decca just released a 6-CD box set by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) of the complete symphonies and concertos of Antonín Dvořák, and I don’t remember when I’ve been quite so taken with such an utterly certified interpretation of Dvořák’s work. Not only is the recording quality impeccable, but Maestro Jiří Bělohlávek clearly has innate understanding of the moods of Czech music. Dvořák was a genius at incorporating folk music into his symphonies, creating a lush new sound. Born in Prague, fellow countryman Bělohlávek, who founded the Prague Philharmonia, has a profound perspicacity regarding the connection between Dvořák’s themes, harmonies, sonorities, melodies, tempos, and deep patterns.

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra CD cover.With passionate feeling and clean thought, CPO is indisputably one of the leading symphonic ensembles of the world. The combination of mellow sound, hot inflections, and keen insights singles it out among the greatest contemporary orchestras. Reunited with Chief Conductor Bělohlávek since 2012, CPO has long been celebrated for their interpretations of their nation’s most beloved composer. The Philharmonic asserts a shimmering and sophisticated European sound, with a heartfelt, string-dominated focal point, vivid brass, and incomparable, distinctive woodwinds, which serve music of their native composers so well. You would be hard-pressed to find another orchestra of the same caliber—and the same intense empathy with Czech music—as this wonderful ensemble.

To celebrate the CD release and their long association with Antonín Dvořák (who conducted the Philharmonic’s debut performance in 1896 in Prague), CPO is embarking on an 11-city U.S. tour beginning Nov. 4, 2014, and culminating with a concert in D.C. on Nov. 17, the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.

Equally exciting is that their tour begins right in our own back yard. Both Dvořák (New World Symphony) and Leoš Janáček (Taras Bulba) will be on the program at Segerstrom Concert Hall on Tuesday, November 4, 2014, at 8:00. Presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, these colorful and innovative works from the Czech repertory will be on the program with a Hungarian piece, Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2, played by the extraordinary French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. (Other works, including Dvořák’s Romantic choral masterpiece, Stabat Mater, will be offered in other cities).

DvorakSince its epoch-making world premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1893, Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony has become America’s most popular symphony and a breakthrough in the acceptance of African-American spirituals as significant art—yet it also spawned contentious racial and aesthetic controversies, some of which continue to this day. The Ninth was consciously drafted for Dvořák’s audiences in the United States, so it’s fitting that the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra opens their national tour with this stunning, stirring, sweeping, spiritual masterpiece. As the first major orchestral work for America, Dvořák was keen to reach out to a new public. The result is a work replete with rhythmic dynamism, astonishingly appealing melody, and a strong sense of place—for me, it conjures up images of America’s beautiful landscapes and National Parks. It was a huge success at its premiere and has remained one of the most popular symphonies ever composed.

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra - photo by Zdenek Chrapek.

Leoš Janáček, who was deeply influenced by Dvořák, is represented in Taras Bulba, a spectacular orchestral rhapsody full of the composer’s soaring melodies and jagged theatricalities. Like Dvořák in his fascination with America, Janáček was a Czech composer greatly taken with another culture: Russia and its literature.

Aside from his intrinsic Russophilia, Janáček was inspired by the heroic image of the fight of the Zaporozhian Cossacks—a mythical parallel to the contemporary struggle of his own nation as well as that of the Russians—whom he considered allies of the Czechs—during World War I. Janáček created his own musical apotheosis of militant Slavic patriotism in this orchestral rhapsody based on a Gogol novella of the same name. Taras Bulba is an inherently dramatic piece, which upon its premiere in 1921 resonated appropriately in the context of other works eulogizing the Czechoslovak Republic.

The concentrated shape of the composition demonstrates Janáček’s mature style on all levels of the musical structure, especially in the so-called montage technique employing diverse blocks of music. The ubiquitous layers of what Janáček called sčasovky (typical figurations alternating two or more notes in quick succession) facilitate rapid change and especially the blending of moods, which are mostly tense, whirling, and restless. The resulting laconic expression is underlined by the terse and unusual orchestration, treating the orchestral apparatus in a chamber manner.

Jirí Belohlávek, conductor of Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.

In the middle of the concert is Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major, the more harmonically and structurally adventurous of his two piano concertos. If you’re wondering how this ended up on the program, both Taras Bulba and the New World Symphony use a version of the thematic transformation technique that Liszt pioneered in this daring work.

Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.Whereas the first piano concerto of Liszt (1811–1886) can be described, despite its inventive genius, as a compromise between the conventions of virtuoso performance and the free will of the composer, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major (1856) breaks the shackles of the genre entirely and represents an evolutionary step from the Beethovenian concerto as drama to the Romantic concerto as poem. This shift is apparent not only in formal terms—in that the three independent movements are fused together into one rhapsodic flow and unity is achieved between piano and orchestra—but especially in the overall deepening of expression and content, linked with Liszt’s parallel development of programmatic symphonic music. Here we find ourselves in the most fertile period of his compositional oeuvre, which began with his move to Weimar in 1847. Liszt soon turned the city into a center for neo-Romantic music, and it was there that the Second piano concerto was premiered in the year after its composition.

Segerstrom Concert Hall has proven itself time and again to be one of the best venues for music concerts in this or any other city. The gorgeous hall is blessed with terrific sight lines and extraordinary acoustics. This is definitely a concert to Czech out.


Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Jirí Belohlávek, Music Director and Chief Conductor
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Piano
JANÁČEK Taras Bulba
LISZT Piano Concerto No. 2
DVOŘÁK Symphony No. 9, From the New World
Renée & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall
Tuesday, November 4, 2014 at 8 pm
pre-concert lecture by Rich Capparela at 7 pm
for tickets, call (949) 553-2422 or visit

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