The Czech Philharmonic had a busy weekend. The orchestra is scheduled to cap its U.S. tour at the National Cathedral on Monday, marking the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, preceded by playing at Carnegie Hall on Saturday and a stop on Friday at George Mason University, where the program bulged with home-grown music by Dvorak and Janacek.
At a time when orchestras far and wide seem to be sounding more alike, the Czech Philharmonic bucks the trend. The venerable ensemble, christened by Dvorak in 1896 and now led by chief conductor Jiri Belohlavek, has managed to retain its personality. You can hear it in the winds and brass — a patina of Old World elegance and earthiness.
A reedy English horn sounded the yearning theme that opened Janacek’s “Taras Bulba,” an astonishing three-paneled rhapsody portraying the tragic deaths of 17th-century Cossack warrior Bulba and his two sons. Scored for a large orchestra, including organ and chimes, the music pivoted wildly in an idiomatic performance. Lyrical moments swelled with ecstasy, violence broke out in percussion and a rustic mazurka was punctuated by a clarinet’s tortured screams.
More intriguing juxtapositions were found in Franz Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto. Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet proved himself a keen partner, caressing the opening theme in pearly filigree, then pounding diabolical runs through a mini-cadenza that drops off the deep end of the keyboard. Elsewhere he proved both poetic and powerful, whether trading solos with the cello or ripping fiery glissandos near the rock-and-roll finale.
One can’t blame the orchestra for falling back on Dvorak’s ever-popular Symphony No, 9, the “New World” symphony, given its American roots. Written in New York and premiered at Carnegie Hall, the piece also headlined the Philharmonic’s very first concert 118 years ago in Prague.
Although not a note-perfect performance, the symphony’s overflowing melodies and thrusting rhythms rarely sounded so fresh and instinctively shaped. In the beloved Largo, birdsong fluttered in the winds, basses walked a funereal march, and a handful of strings whispered the tender theme before a wash of Wagnerian trombones swelled.
The Philharmonic left an enthusiastic audience with two Czech encores and an appetite for even more.
An earlier version of this review gave the incorrect day for the National Cathedral concert. This story has been corrected.
Huizenga is a freelance writer.