Czech spirit

LAWRENCE BUDMEN is impressed by Zdenek Macal and the New World Symphony

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a wave of cultural nationalism swept through the lands of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia. In music, Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884) and Antonin Dvorák (1841-1904) led the way. Both composers wrote scores that were imbued with the spirit of incipient Czech nationalism. (After World War I, the lands would unite as Czechoslovakia.) Dvorák's friend Leos Janácek (1854-1928) brought a unique folk based Modernism to this new cultural nationalism. Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) fused Czech elements with a sophisticated embrace of Gallic elegance and Stravinsky inspired neo-classicism. Sadly some of the Czech lands' most gifted creative musicians (the brilliant Viktor Ullmann, the innovative Hans Krasa and Pavel Haas) perished in Nazi death camps. Today Karel Husa (born 1921), now an American citizen, is the last composer in the Czech nationalist tradition. Josef Suk (1874-1935), Dvorák's son in law, is a neglected figure. While his violin vignettes are occasionally played, Suk's major scores are rarely heard. The music of this grandly romantic composer took center stage on 28 March 2004 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach, Florida, USA when the New World Symphony presented orchestral works 'In the Czech Style' under the baton of the great Czech conductor Zdenek Macal.

In 1899-1900 Suk compiled a symphonic suite from the incidental music he had composed for the Czech dramatist Julius Zeyer's play Radaz and Mahulena. The Pohadka ('Fairy Tale') Op 16 is music of sensuous beauty and rich orchestral color. The play was apparently a sort of 'Magic Flute' -- a tale of a Prince and Princess who must undergo various trials before they can be united. Suk imbued this fable with a score that defines Romanticism. The rapturous love music of the first movement is worthy of Wagner or Strauss. The scherzo, 'Playing at Swans and Peacocks', has a Czech vigor and colorful orchestral palette right out of Dvorák's Slavonic Dances. The 'Mourning Music' is both solemn and eloquent -- achieved with the utmost compositional simplicity. The concluding triumph music is stirring, the gorgeous love theme returning for one final appearance.

In a week of concerts in South Florida that featured superb music making by Paavo Jarvi and the Cincinnati Symphony and an outstanding program by the Israel Philharmonic under the remarkable Yoel Levi, the New World Symphony was not to be outdone. Under Macal's inspired direction, the musicians did full justice to Suk's wonderful score. The lush string sound was a real boon to this ultra Romantic work. Nelly Kim's gleaming violin solos made the music soar. The colorful wind playing (in the Scherzo) and the sonorous brass (in the finale) gave the music a wonderful autumnal glow. Conducting without a score, Macal was the absolute master of Suk's rhapsodic work. His perfect sense of balance and tone was awesome. Macal made the score flow ever forward with a sense of musical inevitability. A thrilling performance! Suk's major orchestral works deserve more frequent performance. In future seasons, perhaps Macal can lead the colorful A Winter's Tale or Suk's visionary late masterwork the Asrael Symphony.

Dvorák's Symphony No 9 in E minor Op 95 ('From the New World') is thrice familiar fare but achieved freshly minted beauty in Macal's idiomatic performance. The hushed surprise of the adagio introduction gave way to the driving rhythmic thrust of the Allegro molto. The warm, glowing tone of Kazem Abdullah's clarinet solo embraced the second theme. Macal's wonderfully slow, flexible manner with the third subject recalled the classic recorded accounts by Bernstein and Tallich. In the famous Largo, Macal drew sentiment without sentimentality. The blend of string instruments had the beautiful intimacy of chamber music. Macal brought gusto and real Czech spirit to the Allegro molto. The rich string rubato (in the movement's second theme) sounded wonderful. The light, warm sound of the winds really glowed. For once the Allegro con fuoco finale did not sound like an anti-climax. Under Macal's masterful baton, the movement became a true apotheosis of Dvorák's American odyssey. A masterwork revitalized!

Smetana's Overture to Libuse opened the concert on a magisterial note. Despite the composer's nationalistic flare, the German influence remains strong in this music. The beautiful wind theme recalls the Prelude to Wagner's Lohengrin. The orchestral climax is truly Wagnerian. This is enthralling music. It is long past time for Libuse to receive a full scale North American production. The New World brass playing was wonderfully mellow and sonorous. Macal drew a superb performance from the entire ensemble.

Zdenek Macal is a great orchestral colorist. He brings tremendous enthusiasm and musical integrity to every work he conducts. (And not only in Czech music -- several seasons ago he led a reverent, eloquent performance of Leonard Bernstein's Jeremiah Symphony and his Rachmaninoff Second Symphony was filled with Romantic ardor.) Macal makes music come alive!

Copyright © 27 April 2004 Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, USA

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