Hrůša makes an exciting Boston Symphony debut
Certain guest conductors have become favorites among audiences at concerts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This month features the return of Charles Dutoit, and Bramwell Tovey and Christoph von Dohnányi will appear with the orchestra later this season.
Yet the revolving door of podium guests frequently brings in fresh faces that are given the chance to make strong, even exciting first impressions. That was the case Thursday night at Symphony Hall, where Jakub Hrůša made his BSO debut.
The 35-year-old Czech conductor has been a name to watch over the past decade. He has served as associate conductor of the Czech Philharmonic and as chief conductor of the Prague Orchestra, a post he held from 2008 to 2015. He is currently the chief conductor of the Bamberg Symphony. This season he will debut with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and Chicago Symphony Orchestra, among others.
Czech music is a specialty of Hrůša’s, and he has recorded the works of Smetana and Janáček. Music by the two composers made up half of Thursday’s program, with one piece making its belated BSO debut.
Janáček’s Taras Bulba is a dramatic symphonic rhapsody based upon the historical novel by Nikolai Gogol. Its three movements recount the deaths of Bulba, a ruthless Cossack with hatred of both Jews and Poles, and his two sons, Andri and Ostap.
Rather than a strict narrative, each movement unfolds in non-linear episodes from the novel. We witness Andri’s love for a Polish woman through a keening oboe solo in the first movement. Ostap’s dreadful end at the hands of Poles sounds powerfully in the second, while the third captures Bulba’s fury as he kills Polish men, women, and children in revenge.
Hrůša is an energetic presence on the podium. He conducted with swift, athletic movements and the occasional leaping downbeat. The resulting performance was not only notable for its drama but for its rhythmic drive and precision. The BSO brass punctuated the work’s dotted figures with pinpoint accuracy, and the string statements that open the second movement sounded with stark power. In the final movement, Hrůša built the disparate sections and Polish dances into a sturdy, satisfying climax.
Two additional orchestral works showed the conductor’s keen interpretative powers.
Smetana’s Šárka, which opened the concert, is the third of the composer’s six symphonic poems collectively known as Má Vlast. Šárka is a rich, dramatic score that tells of the ordeals of the eponymous warrior heroine who has also been the subject of operas by Fibich and Janáček.
Hrůša’s reading gave a nod to the details of the score. Quick glances highlighted a brass chord here and there, and his soft waving gestures seemed to caress the solo clarinet line at it wafted in the air. But the conductor focused on the big picture, drawing playing of firm commitment and musicality.
With Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, also heard Thursday night, Hrůša led with an eye to the work’s colorful orchestration.
Much like the finale of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, this symphonic poem is a vivid depiction of a witches’ Sabbath. The piece has long been a crowd pleaser in its cleaned up version prepared by Rimsky-Korsakov.
Hrůša’s dramatic reading coaxed playing of bracing energy, and he shaped the music with vigorous shakes, brisk cut-offs, and wide sweeping movements of the arms. The BSO brass delivered a sturdy wall of sound when called upon, and the luminous phrases that conclude the piece seemed to float heavenward.
The solo spotlight of the evening belonged to German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann, who performed a deft and colorful rendition of Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2.
Completed in 1938, the work possesses elements of the folk-flavored melodies and romantic sweeps that characterized the composer’s early music. It’s also punishingly difficult and has tripped up many a violinist who dares to perform it.
Zimmermann is not in that category. Throughout the performance the violinist was in full command of the piece’s sawing and darting passages. His tone, in the process, displayed a variety of colors, from dusky low notes to high phrases laced in silver.
The second movement of the concerto is one of Bartók’s most beautiful passages. There, Zimmermann found the hints of yearning romanticism, unwinding the line with a singing tone that was answered with soft a blanket of sound by the BSO strings. The quicker section moved with a fittingly awkward, impish gate, and the third movement moved with an off-kilter lilt. The violinist’s gnarly runs, there, took on a fiery energy. Hrůša led a sensitive accompaniment that was well balanced and shaded with tasteful rubato to match Zimmermann’s phrasing.
Zimmermann’s blazing encore, Ernst Schliephake’s transcription of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5, put a finishing touch on a thoroughly dramatic performance.
The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall.bso.org; 888-266-1200
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