The PKF - Prague Philharmonia is Prague’s youngest and most ambitious orchestra. Founded by conductor Jiří Bĕlohlávek in 1994, and led now by his protégé Jakub Hrůša, it plays a smart mix of classics, lesser-played Czech pieces, and contemporary works. The orchestra’s high caliber of musicianship, versatility and openness to new ideas has made it the go-to backing group for visiting singers ranging from Rolando Villazón to Natalie Dessay.

Ilyich Rivas conducts the Prague Philharmonia
Ilyich Rivas conducts the Prague Philharmonia
This season the Philharmonia is showcasing a series of rising young conductors, a group that includes Leo Hussain (UK), Kirtling Karabits (Ukraine) and Enrique Mazzola (Spain). On Sunday at the Rudolfinum, the spotlight was on Ilyich Rivas, 20, an Venezuelan who has studied with the likes of Marin Alsop, Vladimir Jurowski and Michael Tilson Thomas. He will be making his Royal Festival Hall debut with the London Philharmonic in March.

Rivas has a bit of a mad genius look about him, with a shock of black hair, rumpled clothing and shoulders perpetually hunched up tight against his neck. But when his baton comes down, the effect is riveting.

Sundayʼs concert opened with Jan Václav Stamic’s Symphony in D major, Op. 4 no. 2: a light, charming work that sets Baroque elements in a classical structure. Rivas brought his own rhythms to the piece, graceful and distinctive, with a steady tempo and engaging momentum. It lacked the precision and polish that one typically hears from more experienced conductors, particularly in Central Europe. But the piece had good body and surprising depth in parts, and made for a sweet warm-up.

Magali Mosnier with the Prague Philharmonia and Ilyich Rivas
Magali Mosnier with the Prague Philharmonia and Ilyich Rivas
For Mozartʼs Flute concerto no. 2 in D major, Rivas was joined by French flutist Magali Mosnier. Her gold-colored instrument matched her tone, lustrous and radiant. Mosnier has a light, delicate touch that was perfect for the piece; the notes seemed to float from her instrument. The cadenzas gave her a chance to show that she is no less technically skilled, reeling off dazzlingly fluid and complicated runs. By the time Mosnier left the stage, even the musicians in the orchestra were applauding. Rivas’ treatment of the piece was a bit up-tempo but otherwise squarely in the European tradition, with warm, eloquent strings, deep dynamics and spirited enthusiasm.

Beethoven’s Symphony no. 4 gave the conductor a chance to put his personal stamp on the music, which was smart and fresh. He eschewed the usual grand tapestry approach for a less detailed but more nimble interpretation, setting a brisk pace that grew more energetic, pulling the music and listener along in an irresistible flow. This robbed the piece of depth – some passages, particularly in the second movement, sounded one-dimensional. But that was balanced by a fine feel for texture and a gift for finding nuances in the quieter moments, particularly from solo instruments. Most importantly, Rivas reveled in the joy in the music, giving it a pulse and sweep that bordered on playful at times.

The smaller sound was due in part to the size of the orchestra – 40 players, and even fewer for the first two pieces. This is normal for the PKF - Prague Philharmonia, which typically performs as a large chamber ensemble. The music takes on different contours in that format, often to good effect. It’s like steering a speedboat rather than an ocean liner, trading power and weight for agility and speed. That fit Rivas’ approach perfectly, and the result was an exhilarating ride for the audience.

The conductor cuts an interesting figure at the podium, jabbing his baton, punching the air and occasionally jerking his shoulders in robotic movements. And he works hard; by the end of the concert, there was a bright sheen of sweat on his face. But there’s no arguing with the results, which are impressive. The players evidently thought so too, tapping their batons for Rivas as he took his final bows. He is clearly a talent to watch.