This week's subscription program at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra was certainly marked, purposefully or not, by geographical and historical consistency. The organizers invited a Czech conductor (Jakub Hrůša) and a Macedonian pianist (Simon Trpčeski) to perform works from Central and Eastern Europe, all composed over a period spanning the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.

Jakub Hrůša © Andreas Herzau
Jakub Hrůša
© Andreas Herzau

The New York Philharmonic's followers will always remember the semi-staged version of Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen that Alan Gilbert conducted in June 2011, a high point of his musical directorship. In fact, the suite premiered on Thursday night is a fairly recent arrangement, only published in 2006. Sir Charles Mackerras, one of the greatest interpreters of Janáček's music, attempted here to roll back all the changes to the initial orchestration introduced by his Czech mentor, Václav Talich. The latter thought that the original sonorities were too rough, and they needed to somehow be “beautified” before presenting them to the public. The suite’s music is fully extracted from the first act of this extraordinary opera. It places less of an emphasis on the initial adventures of the main character, the vixen, than on depicting a natural world teaming with animals small and large, from a frog to a badger, from dragonflies to hens, all given their own instrumental voices. Hrůša and the members of the Philharmonic presented a homogeneous tableau with details seamlessly merging together, allowing both impressionistic and folkloric elements to shine through.

Of the five Prokofiev piano concertos, the Third, composed in the post-World War 1 years in France, is the best known and, arguably, the least radical one. It includes the typical Prokofiev mix of lyrical and witty passages, brilliance and introspection, dissonances and classical elegance, with a whiff of French savoir faire. Trpčeski handled the significant technical demands of the score not only with the greatest of ease but with remarkable restraint and modesty. Helped by the conductor and the other interpreters, he underlined with great care the individual character of each of the five variations in the median movement. He brought forward all the dance elements that permeate this music. Far from showing off, he focused on blending (as much as possible) the piano sound with the orchestral one. It's a pity his visits to New York are so rare.

The tunes and rhythms of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade are so much ingrained in the concertgoers' conscience that it is difficult to dislodge the preconceptions and offer a fresh perspective on the score. However, this is exactly what the young and valiant Hrůša, a student of the late Jiří Bělohlávek, succeeded to accomplish. The conductor attempted to make the repeated motifs sound different every time and avoided overstating the Fortissimos. Hrůša’s elegant and precise gestures, typical for a much more mature conductor, encouraged the instrumentalists of the New York Philharmonic to go beyond a routine reading of the score. The principal winds – bassoonist Judith LeClair, oboist Sherry Sylar, clarinetist Anthony McGill and flutist Robert Langevin – excelled in their interventions. Concertmaster Frank Huang didn't only play with outmost precision but also with warmth beyond expectations. Leaning towards unhurried tempos, Hrůša drew attention to wonderful details: the love song in the third movement, the contrast between the virtuoso and pastoral segments in the fourth, the ironical hint beneath the orientalism in The Kalendar Prince.

Rimsky-Korsakov always viewed the tone colors in a score as being as important as its structure and “native to it from the hour of its birth”. For a composer widely considered one of the greatest orchestrators of all times, combining timbres was not a secondary creative step. Placing an emphasis on color and atmospheric effects seemed to be a characteristic of all the works performed under Hrůša’s baton. For assertive or subtle moments, he always seemed to pick the right paint brush.