Davies Hall, San Francisco
October 14, 2017
The San Francisco Symphony
Jakub Hrůša, conductor
Piotr Anderszewski, piano
Dvořák – Carnival Overture, Opus 92 (1891)
Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K. 453 (1784)
Smetana – Vltava from Má Vlast (1874)
Janáček – Taras Bulba, Rhapsody for Orchestra (1915/18)
2017 certainly seems to be a season for auspicious debuts and returns at the San Francisco Symphony! No sooner do we calm down slightly from Krzysztof Urbański’s Polish Lancer charge upon the Shostakovich Tenth, than it’s gobsmack-time once again from Eastern Europe: Jakub Hrůša’s levitating debut in a mostly Czech program few will forget!
This rising conductor leads the music of his native land with an uncanny feeling for its hidden nostalgia, bursts of joy and sometimes puzzling shifts of tempo. A recent debut performance of Má Vlast with the Chicago Symphony deeply impressed critics, as did Hrůša’s new CD of the work with the Bamberg Symphony for Tudor. I was eager to hear him in this program, especially Taras Bulba. Nothing needs idiomatic deciphering in front of an orchestra more than Janáček. He’s the Hector Berlioz of Czech music.
There is something traditionally formal and Eastern European in Jakub Hrůša’s demeanor at first. Perhaps it comes from his wearing tails on the podium, increasingly rare these days. The evening’s piano soloist, Piotr Anderszewski, tall in casual black, sidled onstage as though he’d been riding with James Dean and just stepped off a motorbike. Happily, sartorial clashes had nothing to do with the music making which followed.
Hrůša is electrifying on the podium. Nothing is old fashioned about that. He conducts from memory with classic high energy gestures, but lunging at the orchestra far behind the beat. This premeditation delivers a sense of ownership, a feeling that he knows the music in ways perhaps we cannot.
I’m often struck as a listener that, although symphonic music normally travels quite well across national boundaries, the more colorful it is, the worse it travels authentically. Color in music is usually supplied by woodwind voices, which evoke local speech, birds and animals. It takes a native to get the accents and timbres right.
You wouldn’t think nativist insight especially necessary to find core beauty in Dvořák’s ever popular Carnival Overture, and perhaps it isn’t, yet there was something special in the results Jakub Hrůša achieved from the music’s central lyrical episode, a lovely lapping water effect to accompany woodwind nostalgia. And given their head, San Francisco brasses and percussion always benefit greatly from the Davies Hall stage. So our horns and drums might as well have taken off on horseback, jumping fences. This was a joyous experience!
Of the Mozart which followed I can only add that it was better still. This was my first experience with Piotr Anderszewski live, and I came away simply amazed by the degree of subtlety and mystery this pianist is capable of finding in Mozart. The G Major concerto is one of the glories of the composer’s inventive mind. There are so many unexpected events, the music is virtually a stage work without singers. It’s almost a Restoration comedy, with themes sneaking around the room, jumping in closets and hiding behind curtains. Everything starts and stops in clever ways hard to anticipate.The orchestra was lovely and achieved just the right degree of transparency. This was jewel-like Mozart. Anderszewski teased out tender cadences in the slow movement. And he captured perfectly the final cadenza, which seems to creep up on itself like a burglar. You don’t usually think of Mozart in such vivid terms. That’s artistry….
For the concert’s second half, Jakub Hrůša led Smetana’s familiar The Moldau in a manner both suggestive of the river itself and of the homesickness it inspired. It bears remembering that the essential emotion of Má Vlast is “You can’t go home—yet!” It’s not Thomas Wolfe. It’s not Stephen Foster. The country is just being born. Yet Smetana’s music conveys a sense of loss along with an eager hope. That special nostalgia was everywhere to be found in this conductor’s approach.
Every time I encounter Taras Bulba, I’m further impressed by what an important work it is. This is a big, heroic piece in three movements, whose seriousness sneaks up on you. It’s sort of a Czech Death and Transfiguration, if you could imagine it orchestrated by Hector Berlioz. That’s an incomprehensible description, perhaps, but it suggests a grain of truth. I sat directly over the orchestra to listen for detail. What struck me was that at every turn the composer tries to write a normal melodic line with the most peculiar sounds and combinations of sounds possible. In addition, Taras Bulba starts and stops frequently. It takes a Brucknerian sense of paragraph to make sense of it and a watchmaker’s idea of balance to find normal harmonic progressions hidden in the swirl of instruments straining outside their normal range. To conduct the work with mastery is hard enough, one would suppose. To do so from memory was astonishing to watch.
It’s an auspicious season so far for conductors. And although critics frequently wax proprietary about the virtues of our musical past, I’m not much tempted, so long as musicians like Jakub Hrůša exist to translate black dots from other times and places into emotions of our very own. Steven Kruger