Even for orchestras that have managed to stage virtual concerts during the pandemic, the restrictions have been severe. Guest artists have nearly vanished. The Czech Philharmonic pulled off a near-miracle bringing Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Manfred Honeck and Rudolf Buchbinder to Prague for a series of streaming Advent concerts. The finale offered a reminder that Czech artists can stand alongside their international counterparts without missing a beat.

Josef Špaček Jr and Tomáš Netopil in the Rudolfinum © Petr Chodura
Josef Špaček Jr and Tomáš Netopil in the Rudolfinum
© Petr Chodura

Tomáš Netopil was on the podium for a program of familiar classics and a Baroque gem that featured violinist Josef Špaček and trumpeter Stanislav Masaryk, both members of the orchestra, along with trumpeter Walter Hofbauer, who plays in the National Theater Orchestra. The latter two were in the empora, perched above the orchestra, for the opening piece, Sonata Vespertina A8 by Pavel Josef Vejvanovský, a 17th-century Moravian composer and trumpeter. Netopil opted for a big sound, using luxuriant strings as a base for clear, ringing colors from the trumpets and three trombones. The pace was measured and the feeling light and buoyant, a sweet aperitif that set a festive tone.

Mendelssohnʼs Violin Concerto in E minor gave Špaček an opportunity to show a brilliant combination of technical prowess and emotional expression. The youngest concertmaster in the orchestraʼs history, Špaček walked a fine line in this performance, balancing tenderness with intelligence, reaching deep for feeling without slipping into sentimentality. His animated body language added flair to agile runs, as if he were gliding through the music. Netopilʼs expertise as an opera conductor came to the fore in the accompaniment. He and Špaček set up just a few feet apart, so they could watch and take cues from each other. The result was a seamless melding of style and sound, with the orchestra showcasing soulful solo work. Their romp to an effervescent finish added a satisfying sparkle.

Tomáš Netopil © Petr Chodura
Tomáš Netopil
© Petr Chodura

In the preconcert interview, Netopil described Dvořákʼs Symphony no. 6 in D major as “a torrent of melodies,” which is a good description of how he handled the piece. The melodies drove it, one blossoming into the next, with superb contrasts of light and dark passages highlighting the flow from ebullient to rambunctious to explosive. Fine craftsmanship from both the conductor and players was evident in floating horns and glowing woodwinds, the latter elegantly impressionistic in the second movement. The melodies started to tumble over one another in the final movement, but for the most part the piece developed organically, creating an epic scope with dramatic pacing and clear rendering of fine details. Had an audience been in the hall, a rousing finish propelled by bold brass would have brought it to its feet.

An empty Rudolfinum © Petr Chodura
An empty Rudolfinum
© Petr Chodura

For the few fortunate reviewers invited to see the Advent concerts live, the empty hall seemed hollow, robbing the performances of their usual impact. Yet it also provided one of the most powerful moments of the series, which was hosted by Czech actor Marek Eben. In his introduction to the concerto, Eben noted that Mendelssohn wrote the music for the Christmas carol Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Itʼs not often heard in the Czech lands, so he asked Špaček to play it. The effect was breathtaking. The sound of Špačekʼs Guarneri del Gesù filled the hall with a transcendent luster, achingly beautiful and touching to the point of tears.

For a brief moment, the holiday spirit emerged from the darkness, and the world was filled with the hope and promise that only music can provide.

****1