A Dvorak symphony on a concert program’s menu is usually its main course but, for the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra’s all-Czech program at the George Mason Center for the Arts on Saturday, his Symphony No. 8 in G served as a mere appetizer to the U.S. premiere of Czech composer Sylvie Bodorova’s colossal Symphony No. 1.
As an appetizer, the Dvorak did a good job of whetting the appetite. The Eighth is an upbeat work — one of Dvorak’s shortest symphonies — full of energy, folk-inspired melodies and rousing brass enthusiasm. This wasn’t the tidiest performance on record — conductor Christopher Zimmerman’s hyperactivity on the podium did not encourage close reading — but the broad scope of the piece emerged handsomely. The cellos spoke with gorgeous warmth, and the brass acquitted themselves proudly.
Zimmerman has championed Bodorova’s music since they were colleagues 20 years ago at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, now the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Zimmerman began his tenure with the Fairfax Symphony with one of her shorter works. The symphony, my introduction to her music, seemed to fly by. Its 45 minutes of sometimes tender, sometimes brutal and chaotic, but always intriguing textures and rhythmic intricacies made architectural sense, and her immersion into Jewish, Gypsy and occasionally plain-song modalities gave its tonal harmonies an esoterically dark hue.
Its four movements, slow-fast-slow-fast, made huge demands on both winds and percussion, and Zimmerman, who led here with a lot less athleticism but more clarity than in the Dvorak, had both these sections impressively on their toes. Calm, baroque-like canons unfolded beneath off-balance trumpet rhythms in the second movement. Copland-like English horn lines emerged cleanly from long passages of string fog in the third, and the aggressive percussiveness of the fourth movement paused just long enough for a moment of Bach chorale to shine through.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.