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Sunday, January 13, 2019

Concert Review: A Folio of Femme Fatales

Jakub Hrůša returns to the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The in-demand Mr. Jakob Hrůša returned to the New York Philharmonic last week.
Photo by Andreas Herszau © 2018 Bamberger Symphoniker courtesy IMG Artists.
Rudyard Kipling once wrote that the female of the species is more deadly than the male. On Friday afternoon, conductor Jakub Hrůša tested that theory with a program of works by Janacek and Rimsky-Korsakov depicting females of cunning and wit. These orchestral showpieces flanked the Piano Concerto No. 3 of Serge Prokofiev, the most elegant, energetic and outré of the composer's five.

The concert started with a return to the orchestra's biggest success of recent years: Leos Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen. However, in place of the full work as imagined by former music director Alan Gilbert and conductor Doug Fitch, this was a performance of a two-part orchestral suite. It was constructed from two scenes from the first act by the late Sir Charles Mackerras. The music is superb and detailed, and if any criticism can be levied it is that it ignores the boisterious wedding music that ends the second act of the opera.

Mr. Hrůša conjured the glimmering chords for woodwinds and tremolo strings that open the opera. Pointillist woodwinds added chirping crickets and twittering birds. Violins played the rambunctious and very Czech folk dance (in the opera a duet for cricket and grasshopper) before dramatizing the capture of the Vixen. The second half was the barnyard scene, a languorous passage that ends turbulently. As the Vixen snared and slaughtered the forester's chickens, the strings screeched and percussion pounded. Mr. Hrůša led the fray, his hands creating poultry in motion.

Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto dates from the composer's cosmopolitan period, and uses the same sense of arch playfulness that characterized his opera The Love for Three Oranges. However, at the first entry of the solo instrument, soloist Simon Trpceski was playig with so much delicacy and restraint that his instrument's voice disappeared, subsumed entirely by the swelling orchestration. This discrepancy was resolved with his first unaccompanied forte passage but it was not a good start to this difficult concerto.

The Theme and Variations forms the concerto's central movement. Here, a simple folksy figure is stretched, twisted, tortured and contorted in the course of five complex variations, each allowing soloist and orchestra to build on what came before. Mr. Trpceski's phrasing here was accurate and precise. However, the athletic final movement seemed to degenerate into a contest of volume between orchestra and piano. with the soloist working frantically to navigate the music's twists and turns. Still, the audience seemed to like it.

Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade is a hybrid: a programmatic four movement work that follows the model of a symphony and yet does not number among the composer's efforts in that genre. It is loosely based on the tales from the1,001 Arabian Nights, themselves told by the Princess Scheherazade in a bid to prevent her execution at the hands of her husband. With its prominent violin part, it is a favorite for concertmasters who want an opportunity to step into the center spotlight. It is also leitmotivic, pitting the descending, domineering brass theme for the Sultan against the wily solo violin, representing Scheherezade herself.

Mr. Hrůša took a traditional, muscular view of this music, letting the orchestra players dominate in the brief solo excursions given to strings, brass and wind. This performance was engaging but in no way subtle, as trombones and tuba gleefully blasted out the "Sultan theme" in the first and fourth movements. The central movements were colorful but ultimately draggy, a whole lot of effect with very little central cause. However, the stirring orchestral climaxes of the finale followed by one last descending sigh for Mr. Huang ended this concert on a sweet and engaging note.

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