Normally, a cancellation by a high-profile artist like Yuja Wang would put a serious damper on the evening. But in the case of the Czech Philharmonic’s memorial concert commemorating the Velvet Revolution, it opened the door for an impressive display of Czech talent, with Jakub Hrůša on the podium and Lukáš Vondráček filling in at the piano. The result was a banner event for the orchestra and the country.

Jakub Hrůša
© Petr Chodura

The program opened with Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor, which won Vondráček first prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 2016. That brought international acclaim to a Wunderkind whom Czech audiences had known for years; he gave his first concert at the age of four, and won several national competitions before making his debut with the Czech Philharmonic when he was 15. Vondráček cuts an unusual figure at the piano, hunched over the keys, mouthing the music and grimacing like he’s performing manual labor. But what comes out is pure poetry.

Rachmaninov’s signature concerto offers an expansive showcase for Vondráček’s prodigious technical skills and versatility. The soloist starts as an accompanist, filling out textures, then takes on changing roles, sometimes driving the music, other times dancing on top of the orchestral melodies or burning through solos. Vondráček glided seamlessly through it all, with dynamics that ranged from impossibly gentle to electric in intensity, lending the music exceptional depth and dimension.

Lukáš Vondrácek and the Czech Philharmonic
© Petr Chodura

Hrůša made an ideal partner. He and Vondráček share a strong grounding in the Romantic tradition that gave the piece a warm, rich finish just this side of lush. Hrůša favors high-volume, panoramic backgrounds, which worked well when they weren’t overpowering Vondráček. Otherwise the conductor and soloist were a smart, supple fit so focused and consistent in their approach that there was not a hint of cliché in the Adagio sostenuto or familiar melody of the third movement, both of which sounded organic and fresh.

The second half brought an early Janáček work (very early – Op.3), Suite for Orchestra. More evocative of Dvořák’s folk dance rhythms than the unique musical language Janáček developed later in his career, the suite again brought Hrůša’s Romantic background to the fore, with an upbeat, flavorful treatment of simple melodies. A dash of thunder and lightning in the fourth movement added emphatic, perhaps oversized impact to the finale.

The Czech Philharmonic in the Rudolfinum
© Petr Chodura

More satisfying was Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, which calls for a nearly continuous stream of ominous, cacophonous noise. Hrůša did an expert job corralling the cataclysmic tumult and giving internal integrity to a score constantly threatening to fly apart in discordant directions. The brass was particularly incisive and the percussion captivating. If there is a way to present music with a lot of sharp edges and keep it agreeable and engaging, this was it.

For all that, the program was a bit puzzling. The concert was intended to highlight themes of freedom and democracy by focusing on composers who struggled against oppression. Certainly Lutosławski falls into that category, but Rachmaninov struggled with personal demons more than politics, and Janáček’s primary opposition was the Czech musical establishment. More in keeping with those themes was a program of Kabeláč and Shostakovich scheduled for 17th November last year that was canceled by the pandemic.

But it’s a new season. And in the wake of recent elections that drove the Communist Party out of the Czech Parliament for the first time in 73 years, there is a feeling of renewal and celebration in the country that doesn’t need persecuted composers as reminders. With superb musicianship and an undercurrent of national pride, Hrůša and Vondráček captured that spirit very well.