Jakub Hrůša has consistently proven himself to be one of the most exciting conductors of the younger generation, and this weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra appearance more than lived up to high expectation. The program was comprised of works by composers from deep in the heart of Eastern Europe, beginning with a rarity by Hrůša’s Czech compatriot Miloslav Kabeláč. Although scarcely known outside his home country, Kabeláč was a significant force in Czech musical life of the mid-20th century, and an industrious composer with no less than eight symphonies to his name, along with forays into electronic music.

Jakub Hrůša © Andreas Herzau
Jakub Hrůša
© Andreas Herzau

Hrůša selected the 1957 work Mystery of Time to display Kabeláč’s compositional prowess – hardly a trifle at 25 minutes in duration. Bearing the subtitle passacaglia, it’s not meant literally as in a strict adherence to the form, but rather suggesting a gradual yet infinite evolution. Matters began almost imperceptibly, only to be interjected by that all-too-familiar marimba melody from an audience member’s iPhone, necessitating Hrůša to abort and restart. The atmosphere was as mysterious as the title implied in dealing with a concern as elemental as the passage of time, propelled by subtle changes as if down to the atomic level. Repetitions of short cells cumulatively coalesced into a dramatic arch of immense power; the most unassuming gestures gathered mass over time and snowballed into crashing climaxes. Ultimately, the work ended as quietly as it began in an infinitely long sustained note, with time seemingly all but suspended. Perhaps Hrůša’s engagements in future seasons can continue to survey Kabeláč’s orchestral works.

The weekend’s performances also counted as Hrůša’s first collaboration with Emanuel Ax in another infrequently heard work, namely Stravinsky’s Capriccio. A mini piano concerto of sorts, in three compact, interconnected movements, the Capriccio epitomizes Stravinsky’s astringent neoclassicism. The opening flourish was quickly countered by a more lyrical theme, though it was the mood of the former that reigned dominant, breathless and playful, with Ax’s fingers as quick as Stravinsky’s wit. The central slow movement was sweetly dissonant with piquant winds and a brief cadenza – while one may not immediately associate Ax with Stravinsky, the pairing proved to be choice. Echoes of the work’s opening resurfaced in the finale before bursting into a frenetically-paced ragtime, with bright and brilliant virtuosity paving the way to a barrelhouse conclusion. Ax was firmly in his element during the encore, Schubert’s Impromptu in A flat major, the graceful chordal passages contrasted by the liquescent flow of the inner sections.

The remainder of the evening was devoted to the mighty Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich. An arresting gesture opened the work, settling into a looming tragedy heightened by a ghostly resonating clarinet passage from Afendi Yusuf. After the glacial beginnings, the music gave way to a more proper symphonic Allegro on cue with some spiky writing in the piano, driven inexorably forward by Hrůša’s energetic baton, but only to dissipate by the movement’s end, distilled to the spectral sounds of the celesta. A motoric drive in the low strings marked the Allegretto, answered by flippant woodwinds. Concertmaster Peter Otto’s solo part was one of folksy abandon, as if the darkness expounded upon in the preceding could be momentarily forgotten.

The Largo was of deep, intractable melancholy and I was particularly taken by the solitary, forlorn flute of Joshua Smith, made all the more affecting by gentle touches in the harps. Hrůša and the orchestra didn’t shy away from building to a red-hot intensity when needed, however, a vigor surpassed only by the finale. A wild militant march taken at a blistering tempo seemed to derisively defy tragedy through apparent triumph, leading to a powerhouse closing of pounding percussion. More than a few listeners have rightfully found this to be a rather hollow victory, hardly enough to dilute the tragic and a subtle acknowledgement of the composer’s true feelings toward the Soviet regime. What was not hollow, however, was Hrůša’s incandescent chemistry with The Cleveland Orchestra: an unqualified success.