The shock of the new tends to wear off pretty quickly, though never the excitement of adventurous music in capable hands. With Semyon Bychkov on the podium, the Czech Philharmonic buttressed the world premiere of a new work by French composer Thierry Escaich with fiery ballet suites imbued with the same bold spirit that electrified audiences 100 years ago, making the old new again.

Seong-Jin Cho, Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic
© Petr Kadlec

Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin set the tone for the evening – heavy on atmosphere, audacious in execution and brimming with color and detail. The urban setting roared to life in a powerful opening, giving way to suspenseful strings and increasingly frantic dances culminating in explosions of sound as each of the victims was dispatched. The music was marvelously expressive, with Bychkov evoking a sudden screech from the violins, mocking voices in the brass and woodwinds lighter than air, flitting through the narrative thread like butterflies.

Equally impressive was the craftsmanship he brought to the piece, keeping not just the sound but the Mandarin’s complex character in balance with dashes of sardonic humor and tussles rendered so realistically, it seemed at one point as if the high and low strings in the orchestra were fighting with each other. Ferocious energy kept under tight control and transparency in the tumultuous layers of sound added depth and impact.

Seong-Jin Cho
© Petr Kadlec

Escaich’s Études symphoniques featured soloist Seong-Jin Cho, who proved to be the perfect choice. The four-movement piano concerto, played straight through, calls for a dizzying array of styles, often in noisy contrast to the orchestra, as well as considerable technical expertise. In short, a standard approach won’t do. Cho showed himself to be eminently adaptable, classically dazzling in challenging runs up and down the keyboard, fluid through all the contemporary hammering and not above bouncing on the bench occasionally to keep time, like a pop star. For someone playing a brand-new piece with almost no melodies and jagged, broken rhythms, his proficiency was remarkable – as was the sheer stamina required to maintain that level of intensity for 30 minutes.

Czech Philharmonic percussionist
© Petr Kadlec

For listeners, the concerto was also challenging, its formal structure couched in a seemingly random series of agitated outbursts, with either the soloist or orchestra erupting against the other’s gauzy, meditative atmospherics. Bychkov added texture to the relatively spare orchestration, which didn’t open up until a fast-paced conclusion. The sudden blossoming of diverse sounds and colors showed Escaich to be skilled in imaginative instrumentation, leaving one wishing he had broadened his palette earlier.

Semyon Bychkov conducts the Czech Philharmonic
© Petr Kadlec

Even with a break for intermission, the momentum of the first half carried over to a rousing finale, the 1947 concert version of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Bychkov knows the music well and let loose for this performance, indulging in whirlwind rhythms and a bright, boisterous sound. Vivid portraits of the characters were brought into sharp relief by rich, colorful details from sections of the orchestra that are not normally in the spotlight, in particular the percussion and brass. Ringing trumpets, playful tubas and some incisive drum work stood out, adding to the feeling of high-spirited fun. So, incidentally, did having two concertmasters on-stage for this concert, taking turns sitting in the first chair.

Bychkov often looks drained after pouring his heart and soul into heavy Russian repertoire, but after this performance he was energized and smiling. So was the audience, caught up in the infectious enthusiasm of groundbreaking music played with gusto. The shock of the new never felt so good.