It’s always a homecoming when the Bamberg Symphony visits Prague. At the end of World War 2, what was then the German Philharmonic fled the city and reconstituted itself in Bamberg, becoming what Prague musical cognoscenti still call “the best Czech orchestra in Germany”. In 2016 the cultural exchange came full circle with the appointment of Czech maestro Jakub Hrůša as chief conductor. Judging by the orchestra’s performance at the Dvořák’s Prague festival this year, it was a marriage made in Bohemian heaven. 

Jakub Hrůša
© Petra Hajská

One of the delights of the festival is the opportunity to hear lesser-known Czech composers like Vítězslav Novák, whose concert overture Lady Godiva opened the orchestra's second appearance. Hrůša gave the piece grand dimensions and a heroic sweep, approaching almost riotous proportions without sacrificing any clarity. In some ways it was like a showcase of the orchestra’s strengths – glistening strings, rich woodwinds, sharp brass and a fervent style. Hrůša’s influence was clear in the Romantic contours and finely calibrated balance in the sound. Crisp, expressive and tightly controlled, it was a brief but impressive showing.

Along with first-rate conductors, the Czech Republic has produced a bumper crop of brilliant young violinists like Jan Mráček, who joined the orchestra for Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D major. Just 30, Mráček showed why he already has a long list of awards and competition victories with a poised, remarkably mature rendering of a dauntingly difficult work. His command of the technical challenges seemed almost effortless, and he neatly captured the concerto’s bittersweet emotional underpinning. If Mráček’s polished style at times seemed too cool for such vital material, it was nevertheless a perfect complement to Hrůša’s work with the orchestra. The soloist and the ensemble are equal partners in this piece, even exchanging roles at times, and Hrůša and Mráček made the most of the opportunity – weaving intricate lines together, exchanging snappy dialogue, providing colorful backdrops for each other. It made for thrilling listening and entertaining viewing, with the two men raising clasped hands afterward like sports stars.

Jan Mráček
© Petra Hajská

Mráček came back with Fritz Kreisler’s Recitativo for an encore, a technical tour de force that was in some ways over the top – all technique and no soul. Still, it was a blazing display of virtuosity. And if he missed a few notes along the way, they all went by too fast for anyone to notice.

Dvořák’s second set of Slavonic Dances (Op.72, written eight years after the first and more famous set) was a smart choice for a finale, one of the less-performed works by the festival’s namesake. But it didn’t live up to the promise of the first half. Hrůša cranked up both the pace and the volume, turning the dances into marches or outsized symphonic excursions. Granted, there is nothing subtle about most of these eight pieces, and in the quieter moments, like the opening melody of the Starodávný (no.2), Hrůša offered lovely lyrical treatment. But the firepower got to be too much until the final dance, which is not really a dance at all. It’s a nostalgic farewell to the form that, at least in this performance, provided the first real touches of tenderness. Given the opportunity to show a more sensitive side, the orchestra responded with elegance and grace.

Jakub Hrůša and the Bamberg Symphony in the Rudolfinum
© Petra Hajská

Buoyed by an enthusiastic hometown crowd, Hrůša came back for three encores (more dances, from Dvořák and Brahms). Literally jumping on the podium, he cut a much livelier figure than he did during his formative years in Prague. The orchestra was equally energized, reflecting a dynamic rapport and confirming a cultural connection that transcends borders and time.