It is certainly no coincidence that, to celebrate the appointment of Jakub Hrůša as their new Principal Guest Conductor, the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia should craft for him an all-Czech programme. After opening the 2021-2022 season with a concert just as significantly symbolic – Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony – the young Czech conductor returned on the podium to give a sample of what seems to be his repertoire of choice: Dvořák and Janáček. Despite the frailty of certain assumptions – namely, that sharing a homeland is the secure gateway to an immediate and special understanding of a composer’s work – Hrůša seemed well at ease with a programme whose challenges were as demanding as they were diverse.

Jakub Hrůša
© Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

In fact, little other than their Czech origins binds together the two pieces that made up the programme. On one side was Dvořák’s well-known Symphony no. 9 in E minor, “From the New World”, a popular example of late-Romantic, large-scale symphonic construction sprinkled with a pinch of generic folklore; on the other, Janáček’s brilliant Glagolitic Mass, a work whose musical logic defies, despite the grand ensemble, the very principles of symphonic writing. Yet the combination of two such pieces originated a welcome variety which was made all the more stimulating by Hrůša’s conducting.

It has been argued that the most prominent qualities of Dvořák’s symphony make it a safe bet for conductors. The score’s melodic and orchestral appeal, as much as the clarity of its architecture, exert a captivating effect on the public. But because this could look like a battle easily won, the risk is raised that the outcome may be a facile, if effective, crowd-pleaser.

Such was not the case for Hrůša. Arguably, the conductor’s most distinctive feature was his attention to the unfolding musical arc, his capacity to grasp the big picture and only then allow for microscopic enquiries. Undoubtedly, the perspicuity of Hrůša’s interpretation was an ideal match for Dvořák’s score. It would be tempting to compare the wide breadth of the musical rendition to the vast American landscapes that are so often said to have inspired the composer; but it would just the same be unfair to dismiss the performance as merely evocative and picturesque. Indeed, Hrůša’s scrupulous control over dynamics and phrasing, as well as his fortunate choice of tempos, proved the value of the symphony as a functioning and exhilarating mechanism of its own, regardless of corny associations. Perhaps most striking was the second movement, whose quiet flow touched and enveloped each section of the orchestra with exceptional intensity.

Jakub Hrůša conducts the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
© Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

Yet as the concert entered its second half, Hrůša was presented with a different challenge altogether. Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass poses a number of interpretative problems, not just because its composer was a convinced atheist but because of its radically dissimilar idiom. What to make of Hrůša’s flair for symphonic arcs, in a score whose primary logic relies on the incessant repetition and scattering of basic musical cells?

In spite of the difficulties, Hrůša’s palpable affinity with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra came to the rescue. Together, they conjured up a dense, relentless atmosphere which disclosed glimpses of music still to come. Much ought to be said about the winds, whose brass section maintained a razor-sharp precision and tone throughout the evening. Completing the picture were the soloists, whose spot-on performance was led by Kateřina Kněžíková’s steady, mellow soprano, and the choir, who followed the conductor’s directions with nuance. If Hrůša’s good start is a harbinger of his next few years at Santa Cecilia, it’s likely that Roman audiences will not be disappointed.