Jakub Hrůša conducted the New York Philharmonic in a program of lesser-known works from canonical composers on Saturday: Borodin’s Symphony no. 2 in B minor, Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto no. 1 in A minor and Dvořák’s Symphony no. 6 in D major. These are all well-loved composers, but the works presented are not the ones they are best loved for. While Hrůša especially made the case for the Dvořák, the evening as a whole did not add up.

Jakub Hrůša
© Andreas Herzau

Largely this was because the first two movements of the Borodin struck me as strangely disjointed. Everyone was playing well, and together; they just did not sound like they were listening to each other and playing as an orchestra. This may have been due to Hrůša’s coming out of the gate with huge gesticulations, jumping, gesturing and posing in ways that truly seemed designed more to impress the audience than to communicate with the musicians. In any case, by the third movement, Hrůša’s conducting seemed more settled, and the rapid handoffs of phrases between sections that are characteristic of Borodin’s orchestrations began to seem like a conversation rather than a game of whack-a-mole.

The rough start undoubtedly influenced my reaction to the cello concerto, which by any measure was more successful. Hrůša was an able accompanist to Alisa Weilerstein, and the orchestra played their role effectively. The cello enters right at the beginning in this piece, and Weilerstein grabbed hold of the music and owned it from the first notes. She was playful in the first movement’s descending triplets and fiery in the third movement’s cascading flurries of sixteenth notes; but the highlights were the lyrical themes in the first and second movements, in which she played with a seemingly unself-conscious expressiveness that made those moments transcendent, as was the third movement’s scale in harmonics up to an impossibly high note. (Her encore, the Sarabande from Bach’s Fourth Cello Suite, played to those same strengths, drawing the ear in with tapering phrases and suspended silences.)

Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony was his first to be published, and its debt to his mentor Brahms' Second is apparent. This is a cheerful, ebullient piece, and Hrůša and the Philharmonic, seeming much more in sync than in the Borodin, made a strong case that it deserves to be heard more, and possibly included on a list of pieces to listen to to cheer oneself up when in a bad mood. The first movement, beautifully shaped with subtle variations in tempo, evoked companionship, sunshine and delight. Hrůša took the second movement at a somewhat faster clip than the marked Adagio, which worked very well – the effect was of a nocturne tinged with melancholy. Much of the sound of the orchestra here was breathtaking, with the strings sounding like silk wrapped around a steel core. The horns, however, both as a section and in solos, sounded unusually brassy, almost brittle. 

The third movement is a Furiant, a Czech folk dance. This movement was my least favorite of the four; the climaxes seemed muddy, and the sense of abandon, even danger that seemed to be called for was missing. The fourth movement made up for that, however, as Hrůša kept it pressing forward from the first bars, building through feverish tempo increases to a huge chorale that had me grinning from ear to ear. I’m still humming the primary theme a day later; that cheer-me-up list is getting a new entry.