A little-known five-minute overture by Leoš Janáček turned out to be the gem of this weekend's Cleveland Orchestra concert. The young Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša was on the podium for a program that also included another Czech work, Antonín Dvořák's Violin Concerto in A minor with the orchestra's own concertmaster William Preucil as soloist, and ended with a bombastic performance of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, in the familiar transcription by Maurice Ravel.

Jakub Hrůša © Petra Klačková
Jakub Hrůša
© Petra Klačková

Leoš Janáček composed his third opera, Jenůfa, in 1894, but by the time of the opera's introduction in 1906, Janáček had discarded the original overture for a brief prelude. The abandoned overture became the stand-alone work now known as Žárlivost (Jealousy) based in part on a Czech folksong. Jealousy, paired with the concept of reconciliation, are indeed the themes of the opera. Yet Janáček's elimination of a formal overture strengthens the opera's drama. The Cleveland Orchestra performed Žárlivost for the first time at these concerts, and it deserves to be better known. Opening with a brief pounding phrase and a grand pause, there are swirls of sound, and the repeated motifs that commonly occur in this composer's music. There are dramatic mood swings, surging climaxes and moments of exquisite lyrical beauty. The folksong element is never far away in the piece. The same pounding phrase that opened the overture closes it. Hrůša led a taut, convincing performance. 

That giant of Czech musical nationalism, Antonín Dvořák, began composing his Violin Concerto in 1879, under the musical spell of Johannes Brahms, for the German virtuoso Joseph Joachim, who had premiered Brahms' Violin Concerto. Although the violinist had encouraged Dvořák, Joachim rejected Dvořák's initial draft, causing the composer to discard his work thus far and begin again. Even after Dvořák completely revised the concerto, Joachim refused it, although he later did grudgingly perform it. The work has a definite Brahmsian quality about it, especially in the heaviness of the orchestration, although it retains Dvořák's lilting folk-like musical themes. The solo part is a showpiece, with torrents of notes, double-stops, and other techniques, often competing with the orchestra for presence. The soloist plays for most of the half-hour duration of the concerto.

Cleveland Orchestra concertmaster William Preucil is a frequent solo performer with the orchestra, to considerable acclaim. In the Dvořák, however, the overall effect was competent rather than thrilling. Preucil had the many notes under his fingers, but his performance, and that of the orchestra, seemed perfunctory, rather than inspired. The balances were out of kilter, lost in the orchestral texture, perhaps because Preucil performed seated on a raised platform next to the conductor. There were some lovely moments, especially in the second movement, with nice turns of phrase and flexible rubato. The third movement rondo danced along neatly, but lacked the sparkle of brilliance that would have brought it fully to life. We’ll chalk it up to an “off night”.

Composers and performers have long been drawn to Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition as inspiration for their own creations based on the work. Until the mid-20th century, the original solo piano version was found wanting, so needed to be “tidied up” by transcriptions for other media as diverse as brass ensemble, organ and multiple orchestrations. Maurice Ravel's 1922 transcription for large orchestra remains by far the most popular.

The performance of Ravel's version after intermission on this concert wasn’t subtle in Hrůša’s interpretation, but it was thrilling in a purely visceral way. Again, as in the Dvořák concerto, the balances were not always finely tuned, leaning more toward the loud end of the spectrum. One of the main attractions of Ravel’s arrangement is the collection of solos scattered throughout. The mournful alto saxophone in “Il vecchio castello” seemed to overpower the serene accompaniment; “Bydło”, the Polish oxcart, started too loudly, and, thus, didn't leave much room for the required crescendo. The “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” had the right blend of pompous and chatter. The various incarnations of the Promenade theme were among the most effective moments of this performance. The final“Great Gate of Kiev” thundered, building to a deafening climax.

At the closing bows Jakub Hrůša graciously acknowledged the soloists and various sections of the orchestra for solo bows.