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The Czech Philharmonic’s Dazzling Dvořák

*A dark haired woman in a stoplight red dress strides on to the stage. “That dress,” a gentleman seated a row in front of us remarks. Diminutive compared to her cello, Alisa Weilerstein takes her seat in front of the Czech Philharmonic, face turned to Conductor Semyon Bychkov. The maestro lifts his baton and the somber notes that mark the Allegro of Antonín Leopold Dvořák’s Concerto in B minor for Violoncello and Orchestra, Op. 104, begin.

The Artists

At age seven, Bychkov started his musical career at the Glinka Choir School in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he spent a decade singing and learning to conduct, his first instrument being the piano. He then moved on to the Leningrad Conservatory. In 1973, he won the Rachmaninov Conducting Competition. In 1974, he left his homeland to study at the Mannes College of Music in New York. He has conducted the Berlin Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. In 1989, he took over as the music director of the Orchestre de Paris.

Bychkov became the principal conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra (WDRSO) in Cologne, Germany, in 1998. He is best known for his recording of Shostakovich’s symphonies released on the Alve label with the WDRSO. His style is said to be frank, clear, concise, attentive to the intent of the composer. In 2018, he became the music director and chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic.

If Dvořák could be said to have a home, it would be The Czech Philharmonic. The orchestra debuted under his guidance in 1896. Since that time, it has championed both his music and that of other Czech composers such as Leoš Janáček. It premiered Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 in 1908. The Bohemian peasant melodies that influence so much of Czech music is written into the orchestra’s very DNA. In particular, it is known for its definitive, 2014 Decca recording of the complete Dvořák symphonies under its previous conductor Jiří Bělohlávek. The collection also features Dvořák’s Concerto in B minor with Weilerstein as soloist.

Both the Czech Philharmonic and Dvořák’s Concerto appear to be favorites of Weilerstein’s. She has recorded the piece with them twice, once in 2013 in Prague and again in the aforementioned 2014 recording. An American cellist, Weilerstein is the daughter of pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein and violinist Donald Weilerstein. She began her study of the cello at age 4. By age 13, she made her debut performing Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rocco Theme with the Cleveland Orchestra. Aside from her orchestral work, she performs chamber music with her parents in the Weilerstein Trio. In 2011, Weilerstein was awarded a Genius Grant by the Macarthur Foundation. This writer discovered Weilerstein by chance, when hearing her performance of Kodály: Sonata for Solo Cello, Op.8 – 1. Allegro maestoso ma appassionato. left him speechless.

The Performance

The Czech Philharmonic opened their Oct. 28th performance with a rendition of Luboš Fišer’s Double for Orchestra, circa 1969. Fišer is a modern Czech composer. The piece itself ricochets between discordant chamber sets and quasi baroque movements. The orchestra handled these difficult transitions effortlessly, but the composition itself, while interesting, was not this author’s favorite. Thankfully, the remainder of the program focused on Dvořák’s work for which the orchestra is best known.

Soloist Weilerstein took the stage and the orchestra launched into Dvovák’s Concerto in B minor for Violoncello and Orchestra, Op. 104. Bychkov deftly conducted Dvořák’s exquisite interplay between the tympany and woodwinds that mark the beginning of the concerto. With a commanding baton, he fostered the orchestral pyro-dynamics that prepare the way for the entrance of Weilerstein’s solo.

The Dvořák’s concerto is essentially a sonic dance between cellist and orchestra. Under Bychkov’s guidance, Weilerstein was well up to the task. Her precise, but energetic, bowing, command of tone and sheer musicality of her playing perfectly complimented the Czech Philharmonic. The result was masterful performance that earned a long standing ovation.

The Czech Philharmonic . Photo: Yassine El Mansouri

In the second half of the concert, the Czech Philharmonic tackled Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70. Regarded as one of his greatest works, it is a dark composition that combines ominous passages with wildly melodic flights of fancy. Bychkov’s direction unleashed all the piece’s dramatic potential of its many themes as they passed from one section of the orchestra to another. An awed audience greeted its final climax with thunderous applause.

The Czech Philharmonic then rewarded the audience with two encores: Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5 and Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance No. 2 in E minor, Op. 72.

In their Oct. 28th performance, Bychkov and his orchestra clearly demonstrated why they are the definitive interpreters of Dvořák’s legacy.

This writer urges music lovers to consider the remainder of the Washington Performing Arts season. Highlights include: virtuoso pianist Simone Dinnerstein on Dec. 6; jazz pianist Lara Downes and Rhiannon Giddens on Feb. 23; and the last Kennedy Center performance of the San Francisco Symphony under the guidance of maestro Michael Tilson Thomas on March 23. For more information, visit Washington Performing Arts.

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