Davies Hall, San Francisco
January 29, 2017
The Prague Philharmonia
Emmanuel Villaume, conductor
Gautier Capuçon, cello
Smetana – Vltava (Die Moldau) from Má vlast (1874)
Dvořák – Cello Concerto in B-Minor, Opus 104 (1895)
Dvořák – Symphony No. 8 in G-Major, Opus 88 (1889)
I must have been in a Fantasia mood for this program—funnybone at the ready. There was something cartoon-friendly about the array on stage Sunday afternoon—an orchestra half the usual size—an enormously tall conductor in black maitre d’ tails with a huge bald head, black goatee and a tiny baton—a remarkably small cellist by his side. Were we about to hear a concert in caricature by the Katzenjammer Kids? It would seem so. My bad!
Emmanuel Villaume, Strasbourg-born, Music Director of the Dallas Opera—and recently appointed to lead the Prague Philharmonia—caught my attention a few years ago with a warm CD of symphonies by Maurice Emmanuel, recorded in Slovenia. There are many fine musicians like him, working in medium-sized European cities, conductors who pursue their careers outside the limelight of international fame. Every so often, one of them catches the wave of discovery. I think of Tennstedt, buried for years in Kiel. Villaume seems headed for a bit more recognition now, as well, reputation to be determined.
Audiences are quite accustomed these days to hearing Mozart and Beethoven with small forces onstage. It’s still a little more unusual to encounter late romantic pieces performed, as here, with only about fifty players. But one imagines Smetana and Dvořák probably experienced their music frequently this way. The Prague Philharmonia, in the event, is a fine group with a remarkably full sonority for its size. It’s a feature of Smetana and Dvořák’s music, scored transparently as it is, that a small string complement will work. I’ve found Brahms less convincing in chamber strength. What small forces can do well, of course, is deliver moments of individuality and percussive excitement, and here the Prague Philharmonia did not disappoint.
This orchestra has gorgeous horns, and the principal did not hesitate to take his solo very slowly, indeed, at the opening of the Dvořák Cello Concerto. It garnered him a lot of applause at concert’s end. A small group like the Prague Philharmonia can be seductively nimble. Early moments in The Moldau were like raindrops on a window, each pizzicato the birth of a new rivulet. Once under way, the performance flowed gracefully, like the river it evokes, and percussion stood forth prominently with a gleam. My seat companion, Joyce, was swept away.
I, more snarky, was still caught up in my Disney caricature moment. Villaume is not an eccentric conductor. But the sight of him towering over the small group and signalling cues with rabbit-ear wall shadows had me chuckling, as did Villaume’s old-fashioned straight-arm downbeats with his seemingly miniature baton. It was all very “1940”. Conductors have their cueing eccentricities, of course. Bruno Walter lowered window shades. William Steinberg caught flies. Charles Dutoit gives the finger. Emmanuel Villaume cues rabbit-shadows.
And Gautier Capuçon? Well, he was entertaining, though I didn’t like his sandpaper playing. I think he has the ugliest, scrapiest tone in all cello-dom. But Joyce gasped as he came onstage. Capuçon is remarkably handsome—in an amusingly French way. Vertically challenged to the extreme, he compensates with “French intellectual” hair, like Bernard-Henri Lévy, and gazes into the middle distance as Francois Mitterand would—thinking of the glory of France, no doubt. I was thinking more of Mutt and Jeff.
His opening note on the cello in Dvořák’s concerto came across like a buzz-saw. I half expected a pile of sawdust to accumulate under the instrument. Happily, Capuçon did eventually manage to find some velvet in the music—well, the rough benison of wool blankets, anyway—and his attack-mode playing seemed to work with the lighter forces arrayed onstage.
The Dvořák Eighth Symphony came off with spirit and zest. Villaume wound up the waltz with a lovely trumpet cut-off. A tiny flute trill caught your breath near the end of the piece. Details stood out. It was fun to hear all the parts moving. This is pretty close to being a perfect symphony, with no attention-losing moments. I wasn’t quite prepared for assistance from Sprint, though. Somebody’s cellphone began to contribute perfectly tuned pizzicati in the middle of the slow movement. If they hadn’t come from a seat near an exit far to the left, the chimes would have fit in perfectly.
It was a happy concert—and a surprisingly full hall for a Sunday. Villaume got going like a scythe in the symphony and ultimately decapitated the last chord. The audience went crazy. Instead of giving us an encore, though, the orchestra stood up and hugged each other. Oh, well, better than the Russian orchestras. They just stand there looking like they want to kill you.