There was more than a hint of hometown pride in the air at the closing concert of this yearʼs Dvořákʼs Prague festival. The orchestra was the visiting Vienna Symphony, but the talent arrayed across the stage after a scintillating performance of Dvořákʼs Te Deum was distinctly local: conductor Tomáš Netopil, soprano Simona Šaturová, baritone Adam Plachetka and choirmaster Lukáš Vasilek. It would be a stretch to call them members of the same generation, or even pure products of the esteemed Czech tradition, but all came of musical age at more or less the same time in Prague, and have gone on to make impressive marks elsewhere.

© Divisek
© Divisek

Netopil, appearing at the festival for the second time, is a former music director of the National Theatre Opera who showed two weeks earlier the exuberant energy he has brought to the Essen Philharmonic. Šaturová, a Bratislava native who has become a mainstay of Pragueʼs National Theatre company, in particular its Mozart productions, has a rich, dark-hued voice that has earned her invitations from opera houses throughout Europe. Plachetka, who trained in Prague, is in his eighth season as a member of the Vienna State Opera and has sung at Covent Garden, La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera. Vasilek, who also trained in Prague, leads the Prague Philharmonic Choir, a regular at the Bregenz Festival and this season working with orchestras like the St Petersburg Philharmonic, Israel Philharmonic and Munich Philharmonic. 

In short, it was a dream cast for the Te Deum, a celebratory cantata that uses the text of the 4th-century hymn Te Deum laudimus, still sung in many churches today. Dvořák wrote it in the summer of 1892, just before he left his homeland to become director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, as an introduction of sorts to American audiences. Anticipating a taste for lively fare, he packed it with uplifting vocal lines, catchy rhythms and plenty of percussion – a secular treatment of a religious subject that has become one of his most accessible and popular vocal works. 

Simona Šaturová, Tomáš Netopil and the Vienna Symphony © Petra Hajska
Simona Šaturová, Tomáš Netopil and the Vienna Symphony
© Petra Hajska

This performance started at full volume and never let up, with the choir unleashing a waterfall of sound from the emporium overlooking the stage. Below, the orchestra stirred up dark, swirling currents, creating a contrast and synergy that set a mesmerizing tone for the entire evening. Netopil kept the pace brisk, though with enough breathing space to showcase the orchestraʼs strengths – glowing strings, brilliant woodwinds and an effervescent sound. The backing for the singers was particularly good, with colorful woodwinds supporting Šaturováʼs lustrous vocal lines and burnished horns rounding out Plachetkaʼs warm timbre.

At times, Šaturová sounded almost too tender for such an animated piece, and Plachetkaʼs voice seemed to have outgrown his hometown hall, ringing with outsized volume and authority. But there was no mistaking their native feel for the text and music, nor the gravitas they lent the performance. And the choir sets new standards with almost every performance. This one showed an almost acrobatic ability to keep up with the quick changes in tune and tempo that characterize the Te Deum. Itʼs one thing to have 60-plus voices synchronized to a fine edge, and quite another for an ensemble that size to turn in a completely different direction on a single beat.

Tomáš Netopil conducts the Vienna Symphony in Prague © Petra Hajska
Tomáš Netopil conducts the Vienna Symphony in Prague
© Petra Hajska

The concert opened with Brahmsʼ Tragic Overture, which was anything but. Instead, Netopil gave it a bright, buoyant quality, bursting with vitality and enthusiasm. The orchestra played with a fine combination of frothy expression and technical expertise. The finale, Dvořákʼs Symphony No. 6, was the least successful effort of the evening, uncharacteristically thick in sound and lacking the fire that Netopil finally found in the last movement. The conductor captured the lyricism and nuances of the piece, but in the end one had to wonder if he had devoted most of his rehearsal time to the Te Deum

If so, it was time well-spent. And the encores – Brahmsʼ Hungarian Dance no. 1 and Johann Straussʼ Tritsch-Tratsch Polka – took both conductor and orchestra back to lighter, brighter material that sent a packed house home happy and proud.

****1