If you want to have a rousing national day celebration, give Sir Antonio Pappano a call. On the 34th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, Pappano and longtime performing and recording partner Janine Jansen joined the Czech Philharmonic for an evening of musical fireworks and high-energy artistry that brought a packed hall to its feet.

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Sir Antonio Pappano, Janine Jansen and the Czech Philharmonic
© Petr Kadlec

Brahms’ Nänie seemed an unlikely opener, given its sorrowful subject matter. Pappano handled it less as a lament than a meditation on life and death, as well as a showpiece for both the orchestra and the Prague Philharmonic Choir. The choir has a sharp, compelling sound that he took down half a notch to more soothing tones, matching a gentle approach in the music. As the piece gathered intensity, exceptionally clear, balanced work with the orchestra provided a colorful foundation for rich, rounded vocals. Few guest conductors achieve the nuanced blend that Pappano was able to craft with two of the country’s finest ensembles.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor offered an opportunity to watch Pappano and Jansen work together and relish a very high level of musicianship. Pappano set a brisk tempo and provided dramatic, driving accompaniment for Jansen’s coolly passionate playing. The fire and ice contrast highlighted Jansen’s virtuoso technical skills, particularly in the first movement cadenza, as well as carefully calibrated orchestra support that ranged from graceful to blazing. The second movement was especially striking, an admixture of tender solo work and glimmering accompaniment that exerted a powerful emotional appeal. A high-spirited finale scampered in a light, airy style that allowed Pappano and Jansen to indulge in the playful enthusiasm of the music without losing any of the refinement in their interpretation.

The most remarkable thing about Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, Op.72 was that they sounded Czech – another noteworthy achievement for a visiting conductor. Pappano showed an intuitive feel for the melodies and an appreciation for the orchestra’s style that gave the music roots, the heartwarming homeland sound that characterises Czech orchestras. Pappano likes explosive percussion and favoured an expansive approach that took some of the dances into symphonic territory, with sweeping flourishes and pounding climaxes. Martial rhythms added to the grand dimensions, but at their core the dances retained their uninhibited spirit of exuberance and identity. Dvořák’s music embodies Czech tradition and character like no other, and judging from the audience’s reaction, Pappano captured that sense of national pride very well.

Which was also how the concert started – actually not with Brahms, but with the Czech national anthem, a tradition at Velvet Revolution anniversary concerts. Many visiting conductors have led that piece, but few with the gusto of Pappano, who devoted the same care and close attention to it that he would give any classical piece on the program. There is no better way to win the hearts of a Czech Philharmonic audience, especially for a conductor making his debut appearance with the orchestra. Pappano seemed equally enamoured speaking to supporters at a reception afterward, marvelling at “the incredible musicality and passion” of the orchestra. Though long overdue, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.