It was entirely coincidental that the Czech Philharmonic opened its new season with Shostakovichʼs Violin Concerto no. 1 just three days after announcing Semyon Bychkov as the orchestraʼs new Chief Conductor and Music Director. But even before the untimely death of Jiří Bělohlávek in May, the orchestra had been striking out in new directions, enlisting the Russian conductor for a multi-year Tchaikovsky project. And while Bělohlávek will always be part of the Czech Philharmonicʼs DNA, the opening concert left no doubt that it is ready to move on.

Jakub Hrůša © Petra Hajska
Jakub Hrůša
© Petra Hajska

Bychkovʼs tenure begins with the 2018/19 season. This year he will be sharing guest slots with two of the brightest stars among the current crop of young Czech conductors, Jakub Hrůša and Tomáš Netopil. Both will return next season, sharing the title of Principal Guest Conductor and leading the orchestra mainly in the Czech repertoire, special concerts and tours.

Hrůša was the perfect choice to open this season. A protégé of Bělohlávek, he was at the same podium in June for the memorial farewell to the conductor, an impassioned performance of Dvořákʼs Stabat Mater. The feeling among orchestra managers is that Hrůša needs more seasoning before he is ready to take up Bělohlávekʼs mantle, but in terms of musical and emotional continuity, one could not have asked for better. 

The soloist for the concerto was Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, who is not much for interacting with the conductor or orchestra. This made the performance a bit rough around the edges, especially in the early movements. But when Kavakos catches fire he is a show in himself, and the natural reaction of everybody else onstage is to give him plenty of room, hold their breaths and enjoy the fireworks.

Even by the standards of a notably muted opening movement, Kavakos was almost affectless at first, playing in a monotone against a colorful backdrop of shifting soundscapes finely crafted by Hrůša. He picked up energy and a bit of an edge in the rhythmic second movement, matched by some sharp work in the orchestraʼs string section. The emotional Passacaglia seemed to finally bring him out of his disengaged shell and onto new levels of both expression and dazzling virtuosity, especially in the cadenza, which he attacked with the ferocity of a five-alarm fire. Kavakos did everything but get on his knees for a screaming improvisation that would have fit neatly alongside a guitar solo by Jimi Hendrix. 

Leonidas Kavakos © Petra Hajska
Leonidas Kavakos
© Petra Hajska

The momentum of the final movement carried over into sustained applause from both the players and the audience – not unlike a rock concert. For an encore Kavakos did not set his violin on fire, opting instead for a subdued rendition of Bachʼs Sarabande in D minor. If the concerto was a thrill ride, his parting offering was bittersweet, even melancholic.

Back for a second half of Mahlerʼs Symphony no. 4 in G major, Hrůša took the opening flutes and sleigh bells and ran with them, imbuing the entire piece with a cheery effervescence. The playing had a spontaneous feel and the sound was beautifully balanced, allowing the strings to glisten and the horns to shine. Mezzo Marta Reichelová, who is just starting to make a name for herself on Czech opera stages, brought the same bright, spirited approach to the childʼs song in the final movement. Overall, it was a convincing demonstration that a light touch can deliver Mahlerʼs full weight. 

In both pieces, Hrůša showed an impressive mastery of dynamics. Visiting orchestras tend to play Shostakovich in particular at full-blast, sonically steamrolling the audience. As a conductor who literally came of age at the Rudolfinum, Hrůša has a fine sense of the hallʼs intimate acoustics, and showed how to make an impact without turning the dial up to maximum volume. 

And the program showed an orchestra ready to bring its trademark blend of technical finesse and emotional warmth to a wider repertoire. With three expert hands at the helm this year, the effort that began under Bělohlávek to diversify while remaining the standard-bearer of the Czech repertoire looks more promising than ever.