Review: Prague orchestra earns encores, ovation with stirring performance

From the opening notes of Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro Overture" to the final chord of a Rossini encore, the Prague Philharmonia played Tuesday evening with matchless precision and feeling -- two qualities not always found together. The conductor and musicians demonstrated obvious mutual respect, producing ensemble playing in which the voice of each section could be heard at all times, even in fortissimo passages.

A highlight of the evening was the expressive conducting of Bohumil Kulinsky, music director of the National Theater Opera Orchestra in Prague. The podium seemed barely big enough for his lively but graceful technique. During the intermission, he shed his formal tails and returned in a dazzling silk moire shirt in black, white and gray.

The overture to Le Nozze di Figaro provided a piquant amuse-bouche for the more substantial fare to come. The orchestra numbered 41 instruments, including a bit of reinforcement in the double-bass section (three) and in the French horns (four, with the second pair added after the Mozart).

It was natural for a Czech orchestra to choose a Czech composer, and Dvorák's Concerto in A minor for Violin and Orchestra was beautifully performed. The violin soloist, Ivan Zenaty, played with inexpressible spirit and sweetness. The audience watched raptly as his posture and expressions reflected the music, at times playing with eyes closed, at others frowning, yearning and nearly dancing.

The concerto's first movement alternated passages of solo violin with others of the whole orchestra. Later, other instruments joined the soloist: first woodwinds, then flutes, then French horns, always carefully balanced against Zenaty's sensitive playing. The lyrical and lovely second movement followed and included a passage of pizzicato by every string in unison that was remarkable for its complete lack of harshness. A spirited Allegro giocoso ma non troppo movement completed the concerto.

Called back for three bows, on the fourth Zenaty obliged with an unaccompanied encore, Niccolo Paganini's "Variations 'Barucaba' for Violin Solo," delighting the audience with delicate glissandi, trills, jete and a concluding series of rapid pizzicato runs.

The third selection, Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Opus 92, opened with a Poco sostenuto, Vivace movement. The orchestra's excellent wind section distinguished itself with its prominent place in this movement. The second movement, designated Allegretto but often performed more slowly, neared Largo on Tuesday, and the tempo seemed appropriate for the elegiac nature of this A minor movement. The melody was beautifully alternated between winds and strings, with the flutes performing exceptionally well. The remaining two movements, Presto and Allegro con brio, raised the evening's energy level, with once again a fine balance between strings and winds. A very capable tympani performance joined the strings and winds during the Presto, while the trumpets' brilliance provided stirring accents in the finale.

For once, Lied patrons' near-rote habit of a standing ovation seemed fully justified, as the orchestra was called back for repeated bows, responding with a crisp encore, Rossini's "Overture to Italian in Algiers." Upper and lower strings played nicely nuanced antiphonal parts, and Kulinsky twice playfully directed the oboes to stand while playing a brief phrase, provoking chuckles from the audience. He also amused the audience by turning toward them and dancing a few steps, smiling, to a bouncy passage of the encore.


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