PRAGUE - There, lined up on the grand staircase leading up to Prague’s beloved Rudolfinum stood the players of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, posing for a formal photograph in formal concert dress. In the center was their maestro, Benjamin Zander, holding his baton across his heart. On the other side of the road passers-by paused to look with interest as tour photographer Paul Marotta in jeans leaned forward atop a ladder to capture the image.
The musicians clean up well – the day before they had fanned out through the city looking just like most of the other casual young tourists thronging through every street at an opening peak of the tourist season except for the rose-colored BPYO t-shirts most of them wore which bear the tour motto “Shaping Future Leaders Through Music.” Brass players had busked in the vast main square, handing out flyers advertising 2-for-1 bargain tickets for their concert and even earning a coin or two. And now for their group picture they looked like the pre-professionals and professionals most of them are and that all of them sound like.
The brief photo session was a proud moment because the Rudolfinum serves as a visible symbol for the great culture of the Czech Republic which not that long ago elected a poet and a playwright rather than a politician as its president. The imposing building, opened in 1885, was designed to showcase the arts by a public-spirited savings bank; the stately building includes a concert hall, an art gallery and other public spaces on a site on the banks of the Vltava River opposite Prague Castle. It is amusing to read that previous occupants of this place included a prison, a chemical factory, and a sawmill. The building was named in honor of Crown Prince Rudolf of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; within four years of the opening program he would die at the age of 30 in a suicide pact with his mistress in a hunting lodge called Mayerling. This tragic event accelerated the collapse of the Hapsburg dynasty and the end of the empire; it also became a romantic legend.
The concert that opened the building was conducted by the leading composer of Bohemia, Anton Dvořák, who was newly returned from his years in New York City and it included the local premiere of the “New World” Symphony which he had composed in Spillville, Iowa. The orchestra was the Czech Philharmonic, which became one of the world’s great ensembles and remains so today. It can be said the Czech Philharmonic created the reputation of the Rudolfinum and the Rudolfinum created the unique sound of the Czech Philharmonic because of its celebrated acoustics – the same way that the acoustics of Symphony Hall helped create the sound of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The Rudolfinum has had as turbulent a history as the city it serves and represents. For 33 years (1919-1932) the remodeled building served as Parliament; during the period of the Nazi invasion and until 1946 it presented an ensemble called the German Philharmonic. Today the concert hall proudly bears Dvořák's name, and a statue of the composer stands outside.
BPYO enjoyed the privilege of attending about half an hour of a rehearsal by the Czech Philharmonic led by its recently-appointed chief conductor Semyon Bychkov. The chief order of business was the finale of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto with guest Kyrill Gerstein, who has been a frequent soloist with the Boston Symphony. After a break Bychkov worked with tuning and rehearsing the solo winds in a bit of the slow movement of the “New World’’ Symphony.
The BPYO gaped at the splendor of the surroundings – while all backstages look the same, all auditoriums look different. Dvořák's Hall is closer to a square than a shoebox, and it has only one upper level; the capacity of the auditorium is 1,148. The high walls look like tapestries and almost are – a heraldic pattern has been woven into silk squares which cover some acoustically helpful panels. The acoustics themselves are exceptionally warm and seem to caress the sound. Over more than a century the Czech Philharmonic has learned how to play in this hall, how not to push the sound unnecessarily, how to play with altogether exceptional precision and sensitivity. The head between my ears thought that the all-out attack of the Chicago Symphony, say, would sound dreadful in this space; the Czech Philharmonic sounded perfectly at home.
Unfortunately the hall was not full – this program sold poorly mostly because the people entrusted with advance publicity hadn’t adequately or even competently done their job. Zander, for example, had participated in a television interview to promote the concert that aired after the concert had begun. Despite the gallant efforts of many players, 2/3 of the seats were empty.
Nevertheless the performances were exceptional, even inspired, the best of the tour so far, and they reached the audience in a very immediate and personal way, and the enthusiasm of the public equalled or surpassed everything that has happened so far. People expressed surprise at the level of the playing, which was far higher than they had expected.
This was the longer program, the one that begins with the George Butterworth piece followed by Ravel’s La Valse which boasted a shimmering erotic tingle it had lacked before. The Mahler Ninth was remarkable indeed – after the next performance I’ll write more about the sense, dimensions, and meaning of the symphony. But at this point I want to salute a number of the short but important solos and the people who play them in the way Zander does at the close of a performance when he motions for individuals to rise.
Playing the principal horn part is like an actor blazing onstage to play Hamlet or Othello or King Lear – there is no place to hold back or to hide; it has to be all there from the beginning, although even Hamlet has to wait awhile before delivering one of his big speeches. From his teenage years Mahler conducted orchestras, although we don’t know what the performance of Suppe’s operetta Boccaccio that he led as a teenager back in Jihlava sounded like. We can guess what it must have sounded like! By the time he composed the Ninth Symphony Mahler knew everything there was to know about orchestras and orchestra players, what they like to do and what they hate. The Ninth Symphony has the longest, most important, and most demanding second violin part of any orchestral work in the repertory – to the second violins he gives a superb entrance at the beginning of the symphony. The principal horn – the fearless and faultless Joe Cradler – is at work by the fourth bar of the first movement, and soon he must blaze onstage like an actor playing Hamlet or Othello or King Lear. But the first short and eloquently lyrical solo goes to the second horn, and that is Maria D’Ambrosio, who time after time plays it with warmth of sound and directness of feeling.
Other such moments come to low and high instruments who seldom step into the limelight in other symphonic works – bass clarinet (Matthew Gellar) , contrabassoon (Ryan Turano), bass trombone (Changwon Park), the high E-flat clarinet which may shriek but never squeals in the capable hands and embochure of Diego Baciagalupe. At the other extreme of range, tubist Frank John sounds as if he is laying the foundation for the universe.
More familiar instruments like the cello and bassoon have essential things to do throughout the symphony, with an occasional short solo that reaches the heart as well as the ear. In his masterclass back in Berlin the principal cellist of the Konzarthaus Orchestra asked who was going to play the two measure triple pianissimo solo in the finale – he knows how important it is and in fact he sang it to the class. Annette Jakovcic plays it like a transparent, heartbreakingly sincere emanation of the soul in the finale. Kai Rocke also gets a comparably exposed and important bassoon solo in the finale, and it sounds as if he is asking the ultimate question – but confident of the answer. The symphony opens with a rhythm that has suggested to many analysts the beat of a weakened heart. Mahler’s own. By the end of the symphony that rhythm has steadied in the harp part, which Arilyn Mitchell plays with a heart-easing confidence.
There is much to say about the principal players who do the heavy lifting, but I will do that after one of the next performances. Still I should say something about Carlos Aguilar. This young flutist was born to become a superstar of his instrument, but on some days in some phrases he steps out of the frame to let the listener know it. But he, above all others, intuited what he needed to do in the refined acoustic of the Rudolfinum – he played inside the acoustic rather pushing beyond it. His playing exhibited an exceptional radiance of tone and a depth of personal feeling he would probably never want to express in any other way. On this occasion, listening to him play the music became a spiritual experience.
The day before the concert was a “free” day in Prague, much of it occupied by strenuous walking tours throughout some of this city’s many historic and beautiful sites. Three years ago, the last time BPYO was in Prague, the most meaningful experience for many of the players and staff unfolded in the old Jewish quarter, and especially in the beautiful empty synagogue whose walls bear the names of all the murdered victims of the Nazi period. Not all of the tour groups went there this time; the history since then shows anti-Semitism was still alive in the communist period – the names were plastered over then, and later repainted; since then they needed to be repainted again because of a flood.
A BPYO player this time had a special reason to pause there, Jonathan Rosenzweig, who plays in the second violin section.
His German great grandfather had been a great hero in World War I; for his valor he was awarded five medals. The great grandfather was also Jewish and by 1935, he knew what was going to happen. Nazi soldiers arrived, but the great grandfather showed them his medals and asked for two days to settle his affairs; the Nazis granted his request, and he was able to get his family out through Spain before arriving in Chicago and a new life. Young Rosenzweig’s grandfather was only eight years old at the time, and Rosenzweig now holds and cherishes his great grandfather’s medals, without which Jonathan would not be here today, playing his violin in Prague.
The topography of Prague is dominated by the castle complex high on a promontory above the Vltava River. There were six BPYO guided tour groups that began their strenuous 3-hour walks up there. There are two ways to get down, by 208 steep steps or by way of a gentler path. Fortunately for my battered feet, our group chose the easier way which provided spectacular panoramic views of the red-roofed city below and the river flowing through it.
In the evening all the groups reassembled for a dinner cruise on the river. The food was hearty but not refined; nobody minded because the views of the illuminated castle and city were so beautiful. Four accomplished BPYO musicians offered something classy - an impromptu after-dinner performance of Dvorak’s “American” Quartet – the players were Mitsuru Yonezaki and Richard Kaminuma, violins, Dominick Douglas, viola, and Annette Jakovcic. The performance was really impromptu – Jakovcic was sight reading a quartet she had never played before. There was a lot of noise from the boat’s engines and while respectfully silent, the crowd circling and devouring the buffet wasn’t always listening. Still, it is always a treat to encounter this music, even when you can’t hear every detail. And I know from other evidence just how well these people play.
Our tour group came down into the Old Town near the Kafka Museum. On a small plaza in front of the building we arrived at one of the city’s newer attractions. Two tall robotic revolving male figures urinate into a pool shaped like a map of the Czech Republic; varying water pressure plays an amusing trick on one of the figures. The internet tells me that visitors with smartphones can SMS the robots and they will spell out the messages in the water, but no one was trying to do that when we were there.
This 2004 installation was created by David Cerny, a maverick Czech artist who has become immensely popular by courting controversy; he makes art that is simultaneously whimsical, outrageous and profoundly serious. These days one can even book a tour of Prague focused on Cerny’s public works. This particular creation may be a recent construction but it builds on a very old and natural idea – the famous naughty statue of a little boy urinating into a fountain in Brussels was first installed in 1618, The original statue is now in a museum, but an exact copy continues to function as a fountain and continues to delight every visitor, as it has for 400 (!) years.
Perhaps all Czechs are mavericks. In 1955, after Joseph Stalin’s death, the communist party erected the largest statue of the dictator in the world; seven years later Prague dynamited it to smithereens, and in 1991 replaced it with a giant red metronome which cheerfully ticks away above the city while skateboarders circle around. A perfect treat for a musical visitor.