It is always very exciting to have a guest orchestra come and play at the Davies Symphony Hall, especially when they’ve come from so far away. The PKF Prague Philharmonia is a young orchestra that doesn’t let their youth hinder them. Last night, watching them play works by Czech composers Smetana and Dvořák was quite an experience. If these composers had love for their country transcribed into their music, it was absolutely clear that this young orchestra too, share that patriotism. There was perhaps the same air of excitement amongst the musicians, one could sense a certain buzz as the musicians walked on the stage. As an aside, I found it charming that all the men of the orchestra had white bowties on them.

Gautier Capuçon © Gregory Batardon
Gautier Capuçon
© Gregory Batardon
The night opened with Smetana’s Vltava from Má vlast. In 1874, the 50-year-old Smetana had become completely deaf, but responded to his ailments with an unrelenting energy to write music. He wrote Vltava, the second out of the six tone poems, portraying the course of the river that flows northwest through Bohemia and Prague. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume’s reading was inspired. The clear trickling of flutes, gradually joined by clarinets and violas, giving way to an expanse of meadows and forests traversed. The sounds that was created were lush and one can’t help but picture the flow of the river, the hunters it met along the way and the spritely wedding dance that took place in the countryside. It would be no surprise if the musicians themselves held a picture of this river in their minds as they played and it was clear that they cherished it, just as Smetana did. There were instances in the beginning where the triangle was half a second late, and unfortunately, noticeably so; but all was forgiven when they played so wonderfully.

The scenes of Bohemia were replaced by the sombre brooding of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor. Again, as the orchestra began, I was impressed by the clear and crisp sound they produced. Gautier Capuçon’s entry was strong, his 1701 Matteo Goffriller cello has a very rich raspiness which was beautifully complemented by his bold vibrato. The intensity with which he played was palpable, each phrase given the attention and respect that were appropriate. As the second movement began, the lyrical Andante poignantly guides us into its meanderings. Capuçon’s playing seemed genuinely heartfelt and easily captivated the audience, with precise double-stopping. In the third movement, the duet between Capuçon and concertmaster Jan Fišer was exquisite and a swelling rumble from the orchestra closed the movement in a convincing fashion.

In the final offering of the night, Dvořák’s Symphony no. 8 in G major, Capuçon had slipped into the cello section of the orchestra. Whether he had rehearsed with them or not probably doesn’t matter, he blended in seamlessly. Villaume’s reading didn’t accentuate particular themes, but gave us an understanding more of the whole symphony through his approach. The result was a solid and balanced performance. Woodwinds shone through, strings were colourful and the brass gave a wonderful contrast. There were some strongly evocative passages that portrayed Bohemian landscapes once again, but in ways that remind us of its purity and unspoilt beauty. The final movement closed in a rousing finish, concluding a fantastic night of wonderful music.