The joyous strains of Smetanaʼs Má vlast, which opens the Prague Spring festival every year, had barely subsided when the program plunged deep into current affairs with a concert celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. Like the world outside the concert hall, it came with problems. American conductor Leonard Slatkin was forced to cancel following triple bypass heart surgery. And the shadow cast by tragic events earlier in the day in Gaza was inescapable.

© Zdenek Chrapek

None of which detracted from a fine performance by substitute conductor Tomáš Brauner and violinist Julian Rachlin, this yearʼs artist in residence. Brauner handled a trio of challenging pieces by Jewish composers with aplomb, and Rachlin showed why he ranks among the worldʼs top concert soloists.

The program opened with a different historic touchstone, the 1943 uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. Arnold Schoenberg commemorated the event with A Survivor from Warsaw, a short (about seven minutes) cantata for orchestra, male choir and a narrator who recounts the horrors of the experience in a text the composer wrote based on the memories of a survivor. Itʼs a provocative, deliberately disturbing work filled with dissonance, odd sound effects and genuinely creepy music. Brauner did an outstanding job getting under the skin of the piece and distilling its fear and pain, and narrator Vladimír Polívka delivered the text with searing anguish.

Julian Rachlin
© Zdenek Chrapek

Both Smetana Hall and the Prague Symphony Orchestra were a bit too big to allow for much craftsmanship. A smaller venue and chamber orchestra would be better-suited to highlight the many fine details in the score, like the startlingly realistic horse sounds accompanying the line “like a stampede of wild horses.” But that did not lessen the impact of the performance, nor the lingering sense of a nightmare come to life. 

Mendelssohnʼs Violin concerto in E minor is a staple that demands superb technical skills and, at this juncture, something fresh to say. Rachlin used it as a visual artist would a full palette, showing the many aspects and hues of his playing – precise, tender, coolly cerebral, heartbreakingly beautiful and, in the final movement, playful. His polished style, gliding through even the most complicated passages like a skater on ice, held it all together and made for an impressive display of colorful, refined pyrotechnics. Brauner gave him plenty of space and glowing support, which Rachlin acknowledged with a generous raising of clasped hands. 

Tomáš Brauner
© Zdenek Chrapek

Slatkin had asked Brauner to conduct the preliminary rehearsals of Leonard Bernsteinʼs Kaddish Symphony before his arrival, so there were no rough patches in the second half, just a faithful invocation of the many sounds, styles and techniques that collide in this extended prayer. Out of the initial maelstrom Brauner drew clean lines of suffering, yearning, faith and fulfillment against a background of epic grandeur. The playing was sharp and cohesive, no small accomplishment in this sprawling work. Brauner also showed a deft touch integrating vocals from a strong set of local contributors – the Prague Philharmonic Choir, Pueri Gaudentes childrensʼ choir and soprano Pavla Vykopalová. The only off-note was speaker Vladimír Polívkaʼs strident tone, less effective here than in the opening.

For all that, the most memorable part of the evening may have been Rachlinʼs encore, a scorching sampling of Ysaÿe. Amid the fire there was an undertone of lament – or perhaps just an opportunity to read that into a tarnished anniversary celebration. Whatever oneʼs politics, it was impossible to revisit some of the afflictions of the 20th century without reflecting on how little progress mankind has made, particularly in the Middle East. But there was hope as well, in the enduring power of classical music to remind us of what it means to be human in a way that no other medium can.