Fri, Nov 26, 2004 - Page 13 News List

Plenty to appreciate with Czechs

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra will be playing Sunday.

PHOTO COURTESY OF CZECH PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA

The fact that the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra's opening concert in 1896 was conducted by Anton Dvorak himself may not in itself be a reason for going along to one of their two Taipei concerts on Sunday. There are plenty of other reasons for doing so, after all.

First, they're one of the world's leading orchestras, and this is their first visit to Taiwan. Second, their newly-appointed conductor, Zdenek Macal, will be on the rostrum, and he's an international figure in his own right. And thirdly, the pianist who'll be playing in the evening program, Martin Kasik, was recently voted the most outstanding Czech musician to appear in the last 28 years.

The two programs, unsurprisingly, contain a lot of Czech music, much of it well-known and well-loved. Anton Dvorak's From the New World symphony dominates the afternoon, a work Zdenek Macal must be able to conduct in his sleep, and it's preceded by a selection from Smetana's great tone-poem evoking the Czech landscape, Ma Vlast ("My Country").

These works never have any trouble stimulating a strong emotional response, and this is perhaps why they've been scheduled for the matinee performance. Families can take their children confident that they won't find what they hear wholly indigestible.

The evening program is slightly more taxing -- Dvokak's strenuous Seventh Symphony, following the same composer's Piano Concerto with Kasik, and Beethoven's Egmont overture. These, you could say, are for the adults, works that demand rather more concentration to take on board, though not that much.

That Dvorak dominates these concerts is a reason, basically, to rejoice. He's a composer who had an enormous influence on the late 19th century, opening its ears to one of Europe's most charismatic emerging nationalisms, and infusing his music with a lyricism that was instantly recognizable as emerging from pastoral landscapes.

This was precisely what the jaded inhabitants of the large industrialized cities of Northern Europe and America were longing to hear. Some of his music may now be over-familiar, but it's all well worth exploring or simply hearing again. His chamber music, in particular, is of outstanding quality, simultaneously subtle and approachable.

There are people who say that an orchestra's an orchestra and there's, in fact, not that much to choose between any of them. But the Czech Philharmonic can claim a long history of excellence. Vladimir Ashkenazy, for instance, was a principal conductor from 1996 to last year and made 13 CDs with them. And almost every conductor you've ever heard of has worked with them, from Bruno Walter, Yevgeny Mravinski, Leonard Bernstein and Leopold Stokowski to Sergiu Celibidache, Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Mutti. Composers Grieg, Rachmaninoff and Mahler all conducted them in their day, Mahler giving the world premiere of his Seventh Symphony with them in Prague in 1908.

It's also of more than passing interest that Zdenek Macal left Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion and thereafter pursued an international career. In returning he is, as he says himself, closing the circle, coming back to where he began and conducting the orchestra that first inspired him as a child.

His return to his home country marked the arrival of a new era. First he conducted the Czech Philharmonic at the Prague Spring International Music Festival in 1996 and 1997 and thereafter worked with the Prague Symphony Orchestra where he was made principal conductor in 2001. He became chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic from the beginning of the 2003 to this year's season.

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