The Czech Philharmonic Orchestraʼs 123rd season opened with a major question hanging in the air: How will the marriage between the orchestra and its new Chief Conductor and Music Director Semyon Bychkov go? If the opening performances were any indication, the answer is: Very well.

Semyon Bychkov conducts the Czech Philharmonic © Petr Kadlec
Semyon Bychkov conducts the Czech Philharmonic
© Petr Kadlec

Bychkov is not new to the orchestra. He has been appearing with the Czech Philharmonic regularly over the past five years, especially since undertaking The Tchaikovsky Project, a series of concerts and recordings scheduled to culminate in 2019 with residencies in Vienna and Paris and the release of the composerʼs complete symphonies and three piano concertos on Decca. The untimely death of Jiří Bělohlávek in May 2017 cast a pall over the orchestra last season, with young stalwarts Jakub Hrůša and Tomáš Netopil filling in for him. Meanwhile, the orchestra was learning Tchaikovsky in long, often grueling sessions with Bychkov, where a chemistry developed. When it came time to name a new Chief Conductor, the musicians were in unanimous agreement with the choice of Bychkov. 

A warm-up session of sorts was held a week before the season opener, with a special concert celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia. Every seat in the Rudolfinum was filled for an all-Czech program that started out a bit disjointed. The overture to Smetanaʼs Bartered Bride packed more than the usual percussive punch, and a dance suite from the opera was ragged at times, as if the conductor and orchestra were not quite in sync. Martinůʼs Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani was better-suited to Bychkovʼs dramatic style, though half the orchestra left the stage while the conductor was still coming out for bows afterward, a faux pas that added to the sense of dislocation.

Christiane Karg, Elisabeth Kulman and the Prague Philharmonic Choir © Petr Kadlec
Christiane Karg, Elisabeth Kulman and the Prague Philharmonic Choir
© Petr Kadlec

On more familiar ground after intermission, Bychkov delivered a magisterial version of Dvořákʼs “New World” Symphony. Working without a score, he struck a balance between creating his own colors and phrasing in some sections, and basically getting out of the way in others. No one plays the woodwinds in this piece like the Czechs, and those passages in the second movement were breathtakingly beautiful. Highlighted by the bold brass and thunder Bychkov brought to the opening and closing movements, it was a thrilling interpretation with an international flavor – still unmistakably Czech in its emotional underpinning, but broader in its horizons, with some of the fire more typical of Russian music. 

At the official opening concert a week later, Bychkov and the orchestra left no doubt that a new era was underway with a glorious performance of Mahlerʼs Resurrection Symphony. Authoritative, colorful and full-blooded, it also had unexpected moments of whimsy and light, agile playing that contrasted nicely with the heavy intensity and high volume the conductor favors. Mahler is considered a native son in the Czech lands, but under Bychkovʼs baton his music sounded more universal and accessible without losing any of its distinctive personal dimension. Mezzo Elisabeth Kulman was radiant in her small part, and soprano Christiane Karg and the Prague Philharmonic Choir filled out a solid vocal performance. 

In receptions after the concerts, Bychkov proved equally adept at holding an audience when heʼs at the microphone. After the anniversary concert he spoke movingly and knowledgeably about Czech history, sharing his feelings (“shame, anger, sadness”) when he heard about the 1968 invasion that crushed Prague Spring. And after the opening concert he said what everybody wanted to hear: “This orchestra is now the center of my life.”

Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic © Petr Kadlec
Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic
© Petr Kadlec

One might dismiss this as the type of thing any new chief conductor hoping for a good start might say. But Bychkov was clearly surprised when, after his second speech, two orchestra musicians appeared with a welcoming gift – a new baton that that they called “a magic wand” for creating magic with the Czech Philharmonic. Orchestra managers followed with their own light-hearted gift, a vintage gramophone ostensibly for listening to recordings of the orchestra under past maestros like Václav Talich.

In short, there was a lot of genuine bonhomie in the air. And the new team has already shown what it can do onstage. To borrow a line from a famous film, this looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.