The Kennedy Center’s “Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna” festival spilled into the Eisenhower Theater on Tuesday, a venue normally reserved for theatrical productions and lacking acoustical warmth. Which was a drawback, but only a minor one, for an outstanding performance by the Prague Philharmonia, led by its founder, Jiri Belohlavek.
This smallish group, formed only in 1994, describes itself as “one of the top Czech orchestras,” but its modesty is misplaced. It is one of the finest small bands I’ve heard anywhere, fully competitive with world-renowned names such as the English Chamber Orchestra, Orpheus or the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. The strings play with a fairly dry sonority — but with absolute precision from the concertmaster to the last bassist. The winds also are more impressive in their tuning and blend than in their individual solos, but the totality is an instrument of unusual purity and flexibility, allowing Belohlavek the fullest freedom to carry out detailed musical designs.
The programming was a bit of a disappointment; the two principal works were distinctly second-tier: Janacek’s early, meandering Suite For Strings, and a symphony by a classical-era Czech composer, Jan Vorisek — a pleasant curiosity, but nothing more. I understand the point of fitting into the festival theme, but here was an opportunity to showcase the finest Czech music by a great group. Bookending these pieces with Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” Overture and encores by Rossini and Dvorak was particularly unfortunate, revealing their weakness by comparison. Why not one of the Martinu symphonies, a specialty of Belohlavek’s?
It was in the Mozart and the encores that the orchestra’s considerable abilities were fully displayed, and they made one hunger for return appearances in broader fare.
Battey is a freelance writer.