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Monday, December 12, 2016

Concert Review: Saturn's Timely Return

Jiří Bělohlávek leads the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Jiří Bělohlávek. Photo by Peter Kadlec.
The schedule of the New York Philharmonic is a complex entity, bringing together soloists and conductors on the stage of David Geffen Hall and elsewhere, often in unique and unprecedented combinations. Last week's subscription program (heard Saturday evening featured an unusual combination: a conductor who hadn't appeared with the orchestra in thirty years, a pianist of note, and an overture not performed by the ensemble since 1983.

The conductor was Jiří Bělohlávek, a Czech maestro who, like many of his countrymen is very at home with the unique, slightly off-the-beat rhythms and folkish accents that separate his country's music from that of its German neighbors. Mr. Bělohlávek is the music director of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, and offered a program featuring two pieces from his native land, flanking Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto.

The concert started with the Overture to From the House of the Dead, the final opera by composer Leoš Janáček. This work (Czech title Z Mrtvého Dom) has gone unheard at the Philharmonic since 1983, when a complete concert performance of the opera was led by the late Rafael Kubelik. It is a brief but muscular opera set in the stark environment of a Siberian gulag, and an opera that needs to be heard more often.

The piece opened with two shrieks from the first violins, cries of terror in the night. As the short overture developed, pounding Moravian rhythms (a Janáček trademark) were pitted against the two soloists, who eventually found expression leading the orchestra in a kind of folk dance. The violins shrieked again, cowering  before the terrifying mass of the ensemble, until finding their lyric voice and leading a song of hope in the face of impossible conditions and overwhelming fear.

Next, Mr. Bělohlávek welcomed the evening's soloist: the Korean pianist Kung-Woo Paik to the stage. Mr. Paik made his debut with the orchestra in 2004 as a guest soloist on the orchestra's tour under the baton of Lorin Maazel. However, this performance marked his first concerts on the Philharmonic's home stage. After a crisp introduction from the tutti, he entered, playing Beethoven's solo part with a sense of drama and lyric expression, lingering lovingly over the slow movement.

The second half of the concert featured Mr. Bělohlávek leading the Symphony No. 6 by Antonín Dvořák. This is not one of the "big three" Dvořák symphonies, so it's something of a Philharmonic rarity, getting dusted off when a conductor feels up to the task. It is a lovely, lyric piece with a sunny disposition, similar in mood and feel to Brahms' Second and yet substituting a rawer, more primitive energy for Brahms' supercilious wit.

Mr. Bělohlávek took a big cut in the first movement, omitting the first movement repeat that lends extra thrust to the the development and recapitulation. The slow movement was lean and lyric, building to a huge and impressive climax in the brass. The dance movement (a lusty Furiant was most entertaining, with its dazzling repeats and folk rhythms serving as setup for the finale. This took every bit of Mr. Bělohlávek's skill as its rhythms, built, sped, slowed and sped up again, repeating its thematic material before coming to a breathless, dizzying stop.

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