Itʼs not often that a concert can move people to tears. But itʼs no exaggeration to say that PKF – Prague Philharmoniaʼs season finale left more than a few listeners dabbing at their eyes. Even the guest soloist, American baritone Lucas Meachem, told a group of supporters and well-wishers afterward, “That was the most emotional Iʼve ever been onstage.”

Lucas Meachem and Emmanuel Villaume © Milan Mošna
Lucas Meachem and Emmanuel Villaume
© Milan Mošna

Meachem sang Kindertotenlieder, Mahlerʼs musical treatment of five poems on the death of children by German writer Friedrich Rückert, who lost two of his children to scarlet fever. Sorrowful, turbulent and drenched in regret, the music walks a fine line – dramatic without spilling over into melodrama, tragic without giving in to despair. It makes the same demands of the singer, who has to express the feeling of devastating loss while maintaining masterful vocal control.

This was Meachemʼs debut performance of the work, but it sounded like he had been at it for years. A warm singer with faultless diction and a dark-hued timbre, he seemed constantly on the verge of tears without ever breaking down. In the few melodic moments, a rich Romantic voice would emerge, making it clear why Meachem is currently in demand at the Metropolitan Opera, Semperoper Dresden and other major houses. Otherwise he was a study in melancholy, caressing memories, biting off bitter turns of fate, singing as if the world hung in the balance on every note. Certainly his world did.

Emmanuel Villaume © Milan Mošna
Emmanuel Villaume
© Milan Mošna

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume provided somber, nuanced accompaniment, sometimes punching up the emotional impact, other times softening the blow with a delicate touch, particularly in the woodwinds. Villaume and Meachem are longtime colleagues, and their rapport showed in a finely detailed and balanced performance that showcased both the singer and the orchestraʼs strengths. 

The evening opened with the prelude to Wagnerʼs Lohengrin, a piece that would not typically have been on the program prior to Villaume becoming PKFʼs Chief Conductor and Music Director three years ago. His success in expanding the orchestraʼs range and repertoire was evident in the assured approach and sound, which rose almost ethereally from a gentle, lustrous awakening to glistening majestic proportions. The craftsmanship was first-rate and the playing took the edge off Wagner without sacrificing any of his power or eloquence. 

Wrapping the season with Beethovenʼs Symphony no. 5 in C minor might seem clichéd, or at best equivocal: Is that fate knocking on the door, and what does it portend for the future? In this performance, there was no doubt. Villaume put the tempo into hyperdrive and took listeners on an exhilarating ride sparkling with exuberance and vitality. The volume was explosive – amazingly, with no loss of clarity – and at the core of the sound, the orchestraʼs lush strings were as radiant and Romantic as ever. Villaume cut a fierce figure on the podium, pumping the performance full of blood and fire, and leading a rousing finish that brought the audience to its feet.

Emmanuel Villaume conducts the PKF – Prague Philharmonia © Milan Mošna
Emmanuel Villaume conducts the PKF – Prague Philharmonia
© Milan Mošna

The concert put an exclamation point on more than the season. Over the past few years, no orchestra in Prague has come as far as fast as PKF. It has become a sought-after recording partner for singers like Anna Netrebko, Bryan Hymel and Angela Gheorghiu. Last year it made a lot of new friends and fans with a 15-city tour of the United States that included performances with soloists Andrew von Oeyen, Sarah Chang and Gautier Capuçon. Thanks to Villaume, a former Music Director of the Spoleto Festival USA and currently Music Director of the Dallas Opera, the orchestra has a standing date on New Yearʼs Day at the Royal Opera House in Muscat, Oman. And he has been instrumental in attracting star soloists like Meachem, Sumi Jo and Helène Mercier and Louis Lortie to Prague for the regular season.

Next season PKF will celebrate its 25th anniversary. Thatʼs a relatively short tenure for an orchestra, but given what this one has accomplished, it seems light years from 1994, when the late conductor Jiří Bělohlávek founded the orchestra after an acrimonious departure from the Czech Philharmonic. His goal was nothing less than creating the finest chamber orchestra in Europe. PKF may not be there yet, but it is definitely well on the way.