Tag Archives: Pinchas Zukerman

Prague Symphony Stages a Glamorous Zukerman-Forsyth Season Opener

Review: Prague Symphony at Smetana Hall

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Sitting in our room at the Brewery Hotel on our last night in the Old City – after attending performances at the Estates Theatre, the Rudolfinum, and the Municipal House in the space of four evenings – I couldn’t help but reflect on how beer and classical music must run through the veins of Prague’s natives and people who visit the Czech capital. On our way to the Estates, where we saw the National Theatre Opera’s Don Giovanni in the very same hall where Mozart first conducted it, a gauntlet of pubs lined a narrow street, serving up an assortment of brews, including what is fiercely claimed to be the genuine Budweiser. A brewery and a restaurant are still a part of the hotel where we lodged, and we could have ordered beer-flavored ice cream until late at night.

Nor were our musical choices limited to the three programs we saw. On the night that we saw Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth play the Brahms Double Concerto, we had to reject the National’s La Traviata because we were flying out the next morning. Two festivals were in full swing during our stay in Prague, the Young Prague International and the star-studded Dvořák Prague International, which offered five of its 16 events during our five-day sojourn. If that weren’t enough, the Church of Nicholas in the Old Town offers two concerts every day, including a handy 5pm event on the day we strolled by.

Aside from the National, the Czech Philharmonic and the Prague Symphony are the kingpins of the classical scene, though the Prague Philharmonia and the Czech Radio Symphony – both of which appeared at the Dvořák International – cannot be discounted. The Czech Philharmonic sports the more experienced maestro, Semyon Bychkov, and plays at the more euphonious Dvořák Hall at the Rudolfinum, but with violinist-conductor Pietari Inkinen on their podium in Smetana Hall at the Municipal, the Prague can lay claim to the hotter property.

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Inkinen also holds chief conductorships at the Japan Philharmonic and Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, and he is slated to conduct the new Wagner Ring next summer at Bayreuth. The 39-year-old Finn also has an affinity for the symphonic works of Jean Sibelius, having recorded complete cycles of the seven symphonies with both the New Zealand Symphony and Japan Phil. So I was just as eager to hear Inkinen and the Prague in the Sibelius 5 as I was to hear Zukerman and Forsyth do their glamorous Double.

Before their mighty husband-and-wife fireworks, Zukerman and Forsyth ingratiated themselves individually with two Dvořák gems, the violinist leading off with the Romance for Violin and the cellist following with Silent Woods. Neither posed the severe technical challenges you expect a featured guest artist to conquer, yet they both offered charming opportunities for expressiveness, proving they deserve to be heard live, not just on CDs or FM radio.

Though we needed to lean forward in the balcony at the Rudolfinum to get a full view of Gautier Capuçon when he played Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations the previous evening, the acoustics had been fabulous. At the Smetana, you needed to be at ground level if you wished to be enraptured by the sound of the soloists. The hall was kinder to Forsyth’s cello than it was to Zukerman as she floated through the dark orchestral shades of the orchestral setting, but the full sweetness of Dvořák’s woodwind writing never came close to full bloom.

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The Brahms was a better match for the venue, though Zukerman couldn’t break through in the opening Allegro with all the fiery immediacy you hear on the couple’s 2015 Analekta recording. We finally reached a higher plateau when Forsyth launched the middle Andante with a tone that the hall caressed – and Inkinen was able to draw the cohesive support from the Prague ensemble that he hadn’t mustered before. Chemistry between Zukerman and Forsyth, calmed and mellowed here, became sprightly and mischievous in the concluding Vivace non troppo now that the violinist had adjusted to the room. The double-bowed exchanges between the soloists were at the highest level as the concerto climaxed.

If the initial Dvořák pieces had been cagily chosen to showcase the guest soloists without stressfully testing the power couple, the encore was deftly selected to underscore Forsyth’s charm and Zukerman’s chivalry. The violinist gave way here, and it was Inkinen who picked up his violin and, sitting deferentially behind Forsyth, played a brief pizzicato duet with the cellist. A glamorous coda, as Inkinen and Forsyth shared a chaste smooch and Zukerman stood off proudly clutching a bouquet of flowers.

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Inkinen and the Prague struggled a little with the Smetana’s sonics in the Sibelius 5. Strings sounded a bit watery early in the opening movement, but their sound solidified later on. Pizzicatos weren’t ideally delicate to start the middle movement, but the bowed violins sweetened when they ascended the treble, and the reprise of the pizzicatos was notably improved. Flutes could sound dry or echoey at times in the opening movement, but the doubled flutes in the middle movement floated beatifically.

Fortunately, the hall is far more welcoming to trumpets, trombones, and oboes. The brass were unfailingly dramatic each time they were called upon and the principal trumpet was magnificent. Everything coalesced satisfyingly in the final movement, where the woodwinds were the first to impress. The alchemy between the flutes and the stealthy violins was nicely measured, and the roused violins had convincing ardor. As we neared the climax, the principal trombone excelled – the only non-string musician I could actually see clearly from ground level. To use a gymnastics phrase that is so apt for the end of this E-flat powerhouse, where timpani and brass mete out a string of sforzandos, Inkinen and the Prague’s big guns stuck the landing.

 

Prague Is the Coolest Place for the Classics in September

Reviews: The Classics in the Czech Republic’s Capital City

By Perry Tannenbaum

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The Czech national river, Vltava, flows through the Republic’s capital city of Prague, crossed by no fewer than 18 city bridges and most famously memorialized in Bedřich Smetana’s Ma Vlast (My Country) – where the river usually goes under its German name, “The Moldau.” A rich vein of classical music also flows through Prague, as you might expect in the heart of Bohemia. The gorgeous city not only nurtured Smetana and Antonín Dvořák, it was a friendly haven for Mozart, who premiered Don Giovanni and La Clemenza di Tito at the Estates Theatre.

Classics still pulse through the city. Daily. At the Church of Nicholas in the Old Town, posters proclaim two concerts every day. The Czech Philharmonic, the Prague Symphony, and the National Theatre Opera all have their own venues, and they don’t seem to fret over performing on the same nights as the others. In mid-September, when we visited, the Prague scene was conspicuously intense, diverting us from Vienna and Budapest, where the new seasons had not quite begun.

The National was offering the last performance in its 2019 run of Don Giovanni – at the Estates Theatre! – and Prague Symphony was opening its season with guest shots by Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth. Two festivals were in full swing when we arrived, the Young Prague International and the star-studded Dvořák Prague International. By star-studded, we’re talking Gil Shaham, Nicola Benedetti, Ivo Pogorelich, Gautier and Renaud Capuçon, and Boris Giltburg among this year’s virtuosi; Zubin Mehta, Neeme Järvi, Christoph Eschenbach, Semyon Bychkov, and Emmanuel Villaume among the conductors; and the Israel Phil, the Estonian National, the Prague Radio Symphony, the Essen Phil and the Italian National Radio and TV Symphony among the orchestras.

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We could have concentrated on the Dvořák Prague Festival, which offered five concerts during our five-night stay, but we opted for a broader survey of the local companies and venues. The National’s Don Giovanni was obviously a more Prague-infused choice than its La Traviata, so we pounced on that opportunity. Nor were we passing up the Zukerman opener, offered on the same evening as the Verdi. Our dance card was rounded out by the all-Tchaikovsky concert featuring Gautier Capuçon, my one chance to sample the Czech Phil in action.

To our surprise, National Opera was nearly as excited about our coverage of their Don Giovanni as we were about seeing it in the same hall where Mozart conducted it for the first time on October 29, 1787 – and where Czech director Miloš Forman insisted on filming his Oscar-winning Amadeus. National’s stock of production photos evidently didn’t replicate the cast that we would see on September 15, so they committed to providing us with photos from that performance!

The offer certainly didn’t stem from a desperate need for audience or publicity. Notwithstanding the fact that the Dvořák Festival was offering two concerts that evening – one featuring Shaham and the other showcasing Mehta’s Israelis performing Mahler’s Third – the Estates with its five tiers of boxes and balconies was packed to capacity. We were given aisle seats, to be sure, but it was necessary for management to bring in chairs to make that happen.

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Musicians of the State Opera Orchestra, under the baton of Richard Hein, likely numbered less than 30, even with a fortepiano and a mandolinist on hand, a prudent size for Mozart’s music. The Ouvertura probably would have sounded firmer and more sinewy from one of those mid-level boxes, if my experience at the similarly cylindrical La Scala can serve as a guide. But the hall seemed to warmly embrace operatic voices whether you were seated at ground level or up in the rafters.

A statue of the Commendatore lurks outside of the Estates, indicative of the dark hues often attributed to Giovanni and reinforced by Amadeus. But if you delight in seeing a brighter balance of comedy and drama in Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto, this cast directed by Jiří Nekvasil (reviving the 1969 production conceived by Václav Kašlík) was ready to deliver heartily. As the Don, baritone Martin Bárta was more than sufficiently virile and predatory, but there was a smoothness in his serenading that underscored his legendary charm. Bass-baritone František Zahradníček maintained a pragmatic ambivalence toward his master as Leporello, and his quick tongue on his most familiar arias proved that he was Rossini-ready.

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Giovanni’s lady conquests were wonderfully differentiated by the sopranos who sang them and in the sumptuous costume designs by Theodor Pištěk, who took home an Oscar for his work on Amadeus. Veronika Hajnová was elegant, wanton, and insatiable as the love-blinded Donna Elvira, and Petra Alvarez Šimková was so starchy and pure as the grieving Donna Anna that she actually drew laughs when she put off Don Ottavio yet again after Giovanni had gotten his comeuppance. Upstaging both of these nobles was Lenka Pavlovič as Zerlina, deliciously vamping her Masetto in two of her arias.

Utilizing the side aisles and a couple of the audience’s side exits, Nekvasil heightened the comical flow of the action and the sense that Giovanni was constantly pursued by Donna Anna and Donna Elvira. From our ground-level vantage point, it seemed doubtful that folks seated in some of those side boxes and balconies could see all of the offstage action at the sides of the hall, but they were better situated for the Czech and English supertitles, which were projected high above the stage near the proscenium.

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There were no such tradeoffs between ground level and the balconies at the Smetana Hall in the Municipal House, where Zukerman and Forsyth teamed up on the Brahms Double Concerto for Violin and Cello. To see them or hear them, ground level was best. Elsewhere in the art nouveau Smetana, you will feel a little exiled from conductor Pietari Inkinen and his Prague Symphony, though the hall’s design spares ticketholders below from any overhangs.

The opening night program was deftly crafted so Zukerman fans wouldn’t feel cheated by his sharing the spotlight in the Brahms. Both Zukerman and his wife of 15 years had individual turns in the spotlight at the start of the evening when they presented two Dvořák gems, the Romance for Violin and Orchestra followed by a showcase for Forsyth, Silent Woods. When we reached the Brahms, it was Forsyth’s cello that was most favored by the hall’s acoustics in the dreamy Andante middle movement, but the couple’s musical chemistry crested in the closing Vivace non troppo.

Slated to conduct a new Wagner Ring next summer at Bayreuth, Inkinen also holds chief conductorships at the Japan Philharmonic and Deutsche Radio Philharmonie. In a cute encore after the Brahms, he picked up his violin and traded pizzicatos with Forsyth, radiating genuine charm. Then after intermission, the 39-year-old Finn displayed his affinity with Jean Sibelius in a majestic rendition of the Symphony No. 5. By evening’s end, the Smetana’s quirky acoustics were no longer a worry.web_DP19_1709_ČF_Bychkov_Capucon_photo_Martin_Divisek_15

No acoustic blemishes marred the all-Tchaikovsky concert at the Rudolfinum’s glorious Dvořák Hall, where we heard a transcendent account of the Variations on a Rococo Theme from Capuçon. The gorgeous, impactful Symphony No. 5 from Bychkov and the Czech Phil was not at all anticlimactic, with splendid playing from the principal French horn, bravura from the timpanist, and tack-sharp section work from the brass. But the shape, control, and opulence that the orchestra brought to the Serenade for Strings in C to start the evening – plus the Viennese lilt to the Valse movement – demonstrated that the Czechs’ excellence encompasses sensitivity and finesse as well as brilliance and power.

Capuçon was amazing, the enduring pinnacle of the evening. I’ve heard Alban Gerhardt, Lynn Harrell, Mischa Maisky, Daniel Müller-Schott, Pieter Wispelwey, Alisa Weilerstein, Zuill Bailey, Joshua Roman, and Steven Isserlis in live performance. None of them surpassed the exquisite pianissimos, the gleaming harmonics, or the stunning virtuosity I heard from Capuçon as he possessed the Rococo Theme and each of its eight variations.

Ah, but I’ve never heard any of those other cellists at the beautiful Neo-Renaissance Rudolfinum! Capuçon himself seemed inspired by the sounds that reverberated back to him from the Dvořák Hall. It wasn’t surprising at all that so many orchestras from near and far were converging on the Dvořák Prague International: the sonics at the Rudolfinum have that kind of ravishing, Siren appeal.web_DP19_1709_ČF_Bychkov_Capucon_photo_Martin_Divisek_23So does the September weather in Prague. High temperatures ranged between 58° and 75°F during our five-day stay, ideal for strolling through this walkable and photogenic city, and nighttime lows dipped down to 48°F, justifying my choice of a long-sleeve dress shirt under my blazer for our after-concert walks back to our hotel – along the rim of the Vltava when we attended the Festival.

Preceded on the Prague cultural calendar by the now-defunct Prague Autumn International Music Festival, the Dvořák Prague Festival website yields no hints of kinship to – or rebranding of – the event it replaced. Yet it remains locally and internationally in the shadow of the older and broader Prague Spring International Music Festival, which begins annually on May 12, the anniversary of Smetana’s death.

The Dvořák event has plenty in its favor. Prague’s weather isn’t quite as unique in May, which is why classical music is especially cool here in September.