Itʼs a rare occasion when a concert program is as compelling as any of the performers onstage. That would seem even more unlikely with stellar talent like composer and conductor Péter Eötvös on the podium and trumpeter Tamás Pálfalvi soloing with the rejuvenated Czech Philharmonic. But a strong modern music program built around an intriguing theme showcased the artists brilliantly, and gave the orchestra an opportunity to show what it can do outside its normal Romantic repertoire.

Peter Eötvös conducts the Czech Philharmonic © Petr Kadlec
Peter Eötvös conducts the Czech Philharmonic
© Petr Kadlec

It helped that two of the four pieces were by Czech composer Miroslav Srnka, whose recent commissions include Overheating, a centenary piece for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and South Pole, a “double opera” for the Bayerische Staatsoper. The hot/cold polarity is characteristic of Srnkaʼs work, which is consistently restless, tensile and inventive. For a theme of movement – how sound is arranged and travels – Srnkaʼs studies move 01 and move 03 provided nimble illustrations, and perfect bookends for Eötvösʼs Jet Stream.

Sound was bent, stretched and taken to extremes in move 03, which opened the evening with a series of sonic effects that rose, fell, expanded, contracted, reverberated and turned inside out. At times, the tones were otherworldly, with shimmering strings turning mechanical and wisping into a metallic finish. Other segments were more familiar – a furious solo violin run, expertly handled by concertmaster Jan Mráček, luminous textures, bubbling rhythms – all erupting from different parts of the stage, giving the music a three-dimensional quality. Eötvös had a great feel for the piece and rendered it with fine precision.

The shorter move 01 was written as a study for South Pole, and there is a frigid quality to the music – which is not to say frozen. A single high, thin whistle melted into full strings that floated around the stage, glimmering and swirling like snowflakes. There were hints of glaring ice and lights in the skies before the sound developed some weight and literally rolled across the stage, from one end of the orchestra to the other. Under Eötvösʼ baton, the orchestra played with spontaneity and just the right touch of humor.

Jet Stream is not a standard concerto. Eötvös imagines the trumpet as a fixed point moving through a turbulent air flow, an idea based on his childhood experiences listening to short-wave radio, with the music only occasionally coming in clearly through a storm of static. He neatly created the storm with the orchestra, and Pálfalvi did a superb job in a very demanding solo. Starting with a series of bracing flutters, he played with cool command, slicing through the tumult and delivering a soulful cadenza straight out of a smoky 1950s jazz club. Itʼs no surprise that Pálfalvi is in demand on stages from Tokyo to Amsterdam; he plays with a virtuosity and vocabulary far beyond his tender age of 28.

The evening concluded with a relatively conventional work, Stravinskyʼs 1945 Symphony in Three Movements. But there was nothing conventional about the way Eötvös conducted it, with a light touch and considerable finesse. There are echoes of Rite of Spring, but Eötvös showed that you donʼt have to pound to make a point. His version of Stravinsky was lithe, brisk and colorful, capturing the energy and audacity of the composer without being overbearing.

Which is a good description of the entire concert. Eötvös crafts modern music with an intelligence and skill that make it accessible without sacrificing any of its innovative, esoteric qualities. Just as importantly in this case, he has a warm and enduring relationship with the Czech Philharmonic, which does not always play modern fare happily. Eötvös gets sounds out of the orchestra no one else can, and when they move like they did in this concert, the spatial dimensions are breathtaking and the ride is exhilarating.

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