The Brno Filharmonie under the direction of their American conductor Dennis Russell Davies concluded their 12-day tour of America with a concert last night at Buddy Holly Hall. The renowned Czech band began in New York’s Carnegie Hall followed by appearances in Michigan, California, Kansas, and culminating in Texas. Its program is below.
The all-Czech recital played to the strength of this orchestra. They have this music in their DNA. Their sound is characterized by exceptionally lush and flexible strings supported by winds, brass, and percussion sections that were shown to great advantage by the superb acoustics of the Buddy Holly’s main auditorium.
Of all Czech composers, Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1958) was probably the least Czech in his approach to music. After he left Czechoslovakia in 1923 for Paris, he adopted a style of composing in the mainstream of contemporary European composition. There’s little of his native land in his music. World War II and the ensuing takeover of his country by the communists caused him to frequently relocate making his work even more cosmopolitan.
A very prolific composer, Martinu wrote Thunderbolt P-47, scherzo for orchestra in 1945. The brilliantly orchestrated brief piece was inspired by the speed of the military aircraft that were continually flying over the Cape Cod house he was staying in during the summer of 1945. The piece starts at triple forte (or more) and proved an impactful beginning to the concert. Having gotten off to a dazzling start the orchestra turned to its local musical hero Leoš Janáček (1854-1928).
Though born in Hukvaldy, in 1865 he enrolled as a ward of the foundation of the Abbey of St. Thomas in Brno. Nine years later he moved to Prague for additional study. After graduating first in his class from the Prague Organ School he returned to Brno (1875) where he earned a living as a music teacher and conducting various amateur choirs. From 1876 he taught music at Brno’s Teachers’ Institute. Among his pupils there was Zdenka Schulzová, daughter of Emilian Schulz, the Institute director. She was later to be Janáček’s wife. He subsequently studied at both the Leipzig and Vienna Conservatories. He was not satisfied with the results of either schools and returned to Brno. In 1881, Janáček founded and was appointed director of the Organ School, and held this post until 1919, when the school became the Brno Conservatory. It was in Brno that most of his masterpieces, including the famous operas, were composed. Most of his great works were written during the last decade of his life.
The five movement Sinfonietta, written in 1926, was his last composition for orchestra. The monumental brass choir that opens the work and returns to conclude it in the 5th movement was played by the Lubbock Symphony Banda Ensemble – 12 of them. They were in spectacular form and were a great addition to a great composition. While a firm admirer of Antonín Dvořák, Janáček developed a musical style uniquely his own.
The Sinfonietta is a work for large orchestra – 25 are brass players. It is dedicated “To the Czechoslovak Army.” Janáček said it was intended to express “contemporary free man, his spiritual beauty and joy, his strength, courage and determination to fight for victory.” He did not specify against whom.
The first movement is a prolonged brass fanfare accompanied only by percussion. “The second movement begins with a rapid ostinato from the wind but later has a more lyrical episode. The third begins quietly in the strings but is interrupted by a stern figure in the trombones, leading to another fast dance-like passage. In the fourth movement, Janáček celebrates the newly liberated Czechoslovakia with a joyous trumpet fanfare. The finale begins in the key of E♭ minor with a calm retrograde version of the opening melody. However, this quickly moves into a triumphant finale, the return of the opening fanfare decorated with swirling figures in the strings and wind.” (from Wikipedia article)
The performance of the virtuosic piece was perfect in both conception and execution; it received the second of many standing ovations by the local audience. Texans are apt to give a standing ovation to a serviceable rendition of Mary had a little lamb, but those of this evening were justified.
The second half of the program was devoted to Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904). His penultimate Symphony No. 8 was the sole work programmed. It’s as good a symphony as the more famous No. 9 – From the New World which will be played by the Lubbock Symphony Orchestra this Saturday. It clearly shows by its melodic beauty and rhythmic impetus why Dvořák is the greatest of Czech composers.
The Filharmonie has played it so often that they could doubtless do it in their sleep without a conductor. But last night, they were awake and Maestro Davies’ baton had them under exquisite control. The effervescent last movement, despite an almost imperceptible blip at the end of the trumpet fanfare that starts it, resulted in a trio of standing ovations that were finally answered by a rousing encore performance of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance, Op. 46/8.
As Maestro Davies explained before the Dvořák, Brno is only 90 minutes from Vienna. He invited the listeners to attend one of their concerts should they be in the area. Given the excellence of last night’s performance, the one-and-a-half-hour drive north from Vienna through wine country seems worth a special trip.
An interesting sidelight – the orchestra entered the stage together and left en masse at the interval. The same entrance and exit were executed during the second half of the evening. I found this practice, not characteristic of American orchestras, attractive. A symphony orchestra is a team and teams enter collectively.
Thank you for this rich descriptions in this essay. I learned so much more about Janacek and Czechoslvakia too
An excellent review, Neil. May Had a Little Lamb, indeed!
The exoticism of Janacek’s music has always struck me, and did so with redoubled force Monday night. It sounds like something from dikoe pole (the “wild field” or the steppe) in the fifteenth century. Rather a blend of Slavic and Tatar influences. Not quite from an entirely different musical tradition from western classical, but it skirts that territory. Also, I was taken by maestro Russell Davies’ very leisurely tempo with the Sinfonietta. Nothing wrong with that, but that may be the slowest I’ve ever heard that piece performed.
Again, a very good review, and it was nice to see you and Sandra at the concert.