For the past few years, word has filtered back to Prague from Essen, Germany, about Czech conductor Tomáš Netopil, mostly in laudatory terms. A homegrown product who studied in Moravia and with the legendary Jorma Panula in Stockholm, Netopil was Music Director and Chief Conductor of Pragueʼs National Theatre Opera for three years (2009 – 2012) before embarking on a broader international career. In 2013 he became music director of the Essen Philharmonic, which does double duty as both a symphonic and opera orchestra.

Tomáš Netopil © Divisek
Tomáš Netopil
© Divisek

Aside from occasional guest-conducting appearances in Prague and recording projects with Supraphon, there was no way to gauge Netopilʼs development or his achievements with the storied Essen ensemble. But after he brought the orchestra to the Dvořákʼs Prague festival, it was clear the reports were accurate and the results could be summed up in one word: Spectacular. 

The program offered a bold overview of what a German orchestra with a Czech conductor should do well: Brahmsʼ Academic Festival Overture, Dvořákʼs Symphonic Variations, Martinůʼs Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra and the suite from Straussʼ Der Rosenkavalier. But more than a native feel and skills, what stood out most throughout the entire evening was the consistent and distinctive sound of the orchestra, which is at once airy and substantive. The music feels like itʼs been opened up and given a chance to breathe, played clean, sharp and spirited in smart interpretations.

The highlight of the concert was Martinůʼs rarely heard concerto, reportedly undertaken after a conversation in a Paris café wherein a string player remarked how nice it would be if his quartet could play in a soloistʼs role with an orchestra. Intrigued by the idea, Martinů used a traditional Baroque model, the concerto grosso, and then infused it with pulsing modern rhythms, sounds of urban cacophony and occasional jazz licks à la Gershwin. The orchestra played with precision and flair, integrating neatly with the string quartet. 

Members of the Pavel Haas Quartet © Divisek
Members of the Pavel Haas Quartet
© Divisek

And what a quartet. Since winning the Prague Spring and Premio Paolo Borciani competitions in 2005, the Pavel Haas Quartet has gone on to establish itself as one of the finest string quartets in a country overflowing with them. The group plays with an intensity that maximizes the possibility of every single note, and a clarity that maintains four voices in a single, compelling style. Its performance in the Martinů concerto was typically gripping and focused, and seemed as natural as if string quartets play with orchestras every night. A riveting encore from Schulhoffʼs String Quartet no. 1 drew enthusiastic applause from both the audience and members of the orchestra. 

The Brahms overture opened with unmistakably German horns, then showed a graceful side of the ensemble before blossoming into grandiose dimensions that became almost too boisterous. The volume of the sound was not as interesting as its soaring quality, which lent the music nobility and grandeur. 

The Dvořák unfolded in much the same manner – lyrical and colorful, then building to a momentum that nearly caught fire in the finale. Interestingly, it did not sound Czech; the spirit was there, but rather than offering emotional warmth, the music lit up the stage like a rousing march, providing a dazzling showcase for Netopilʼs facility for creating three-dimensional soundscapes with the orchestra. 

The Essen Philharmonic in Prague © Divisek
The Essen Philharmonic in Prague
© Divisek

With Strauss, they showed an impressive ability to segue almost instantly from dramatic dissonance to charming melodies. The thrilling highs and expansive sound were a better fit for the theatrical qualities of this music, which under Netopilʼs baton also captured the atmospherics of the piece, brimming with effervescence and elegance. In all, it was a convincing demonstration that a serious classical orchestra can swing. And if there were any remaining questions about how well the orchestra does the basic German repertoire, a rousing encore of the prelude to Act 3 of Lohengrin established unassailable bona fides.

Increasingly, Netopil has become the go-to conductor for Czech opera abroad, conducting performances of Rusalka and The Cunning Little Vixen in places like Hamburg, Dresden and Vienna. In the near future heʼll take the music to the United States, where he recently agreed to do Rusalka in Dallas. Dvořák fans there wonʼt have to wonder. This is the real deal, straight from the source and polished for foreign ears by a local talent going global.

****1