All the elements were in place for a grand opening to this yearʼs Dvořákʼs Prague festival: BMWs and other splashy promo items arrayed in front of the Rudolfinum, beautiful begowned hostesses greeting visitors inside, VIPs and well-heeled supporters filling the seats and no less than seven television cameras beaming a live broadcast via Czech Television. Too bad the concert itself was such a disappointment.

Kian Soltani, Christoph Eschenbach and Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale RAI
© Petra Hajská

As always, the festival opened on the composerʼs birthday and in this iteration did not waste any time getting to two of his most popular and cherished pieces, the Cello concerto in B minor and Symphony no. 8 in G major. The line-up of performers was a bit unusual, with Maestro Christoph Eschenbach leading the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai and soloist Kian Soltani – all outstanding musicians, though none with a noted expertise in Dvořák. But then, one of the aims of a good festival is to offer fresh takes on familiar works, so there was a sense of promise in the air.

That dropped noticeably in the first movement of the concerto, when a French horn player committed an obvious gaffe, which proved to be emblematic. Neither Eschenbach nor the orchestra seemed entirely comfortable with the piece, which was played up-tempo and with the kind of surface gloss visiting ensembles often bring to Dvořák – competent, though offering no particular insight or emotional depth. That treatment plays well internationally, but in the composerʼs home hall it sounded hollow, with flash and volume no substitute for authentic character.

Soltani played in much the same vein. He is rightfully regarded as a rising star with broad range and fine technical skills, and he plays with gusto, reveling in the sheer joy of making music. In this case, his enthusiasm also entailed overrunning some details and, like the orchestra, never reaching far below the surface. One way to view this would be as a product of the new generation of classical musicians, pulling a Romantic classic into the 21st century and giving it a clean, modern sound. But overall, Soltaniʼs performance had the feel of knocking off another staple in the cello repertoire rather than building on a venerated tradition.

Christoph Eschenbach conducts the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale RAI
© Petra Hajská

The symphony fared better. Working without a score, Eschenbach crafted gorgeous melodies, letting the music breathe and the flavors and nuances emerge. The lyrical woodwind passages of the Adagio were especially colorful and engaging. The pacing was better throughout and the orchestra was markedly more nimble in their playing, even if the energy did flag a bit at times. Still, this is what one hopes for at a namesake festival – a respectful but enthusiastic reading, occasional moments of beauty and magic, and a thrilling finish to an undisputed masterpiece.

Arguably the best piece of the evening was the encore, the Saltarello from Mendelssohnʼs “Italian” Symphony, which was full-blooded and enthralling. This isnʼt unusual, at least at festivals in Prague. Visiting orchestras play what the organizers request, then use the encore to show what they do more often and best. However, it was also in keeping with a larger sense of unprofessionalism – at one point during the symphony, a second violinist left the stage and then wandered back on during the next movement, like someone taking a bathroom or cigarette break.

One can hardly imagine this under Eschenbach, who has the reputation of a taskmaster. But like everyone else onstage, he seemed out of his element for most of this dispiriting night.