You know the music is flowing and musicians are on the move again when an Italian orchestra inaugurates the new season in Prague. A good one, too – the Filarmonica della Scala, with no less a luminary than Andrés Orozco-Estrada on the podium. After opening the Dvořák’s Prague festival with two of the Czech master’s signature works (the “New World” Symphony and the Cello concerto in B minor), the orchestra returned for a second night with an expanded foray into the Central European repertoire. Though thoughtfully done, the performance showed more exuberance than expertise.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada
© Petr Dyrc

Orozco-Estrada is a craftsman who fares best in moments when the volume drops, the tempo slows and he can elucidate lines with creative phrasing and remarkable sensitivity, imbuing every note with emotion. As the sound builds, the fine points tend to get lost in the clutter, at least in this outing. Weber’s overture to Der Freischütz set the template for the evening, with a breathless opening in the strings and pitch-perfect entry from the horns that were subsumed in what should have been a lush, romantic swell. But it wasn’t terribly romantic and, oddly, never quite hit the right emotional peak. In general, the playing felt more forced than fluid, with dynamics that seemed to have only two settings: pianissimo and fortissimo, with hardly any gradations in between.

Julian Rachlin
© Petr Dyrc

Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 3 in G major brought Julian Rachlin to the stage for what turned into a spirited romp. Orozco-Estrada’s version of Mozart was fast-paced, even muscular at times, best-suited for the dance rhythms of the final movement. Rachlin played with his characteristic diamond brilliance, putting fine edges on the music, especially in the cadenzas, a masterful blend of technical precision and spontaneity. In some ways it was fire and ice, a soulful orchestra paired with a refined soloist. But Rachlin and Orozco-Estrada made it work with sparkling dialogue and tight but playful collaboration – more than once they locked eyes and froze in place, as if daring each other to break the pregnant pause first. Once or twice Orozco-Estrada let Rachlin take the lead, and the fun was infectious, generating enthusiastic applause from both the audience and orchestra.

Rachlin changed the mood with an encore of the Sarabande from Bach’s Partita no. 2, a better showcase of his skills as a soloist. It was brief but intense, a deep reading that added new dimensions to a familiar piece. The audience fell into a mesmerized silence as Rachlin held the entire hall spellbound.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the Filarmonica della Scala in the Rudolfinum
© Petr Dyrc

Brahms never sounded as bright and cheerful as he did in Orozco-Estrada’s treatment of his Second Symphony, which was not shy about invoking the parallels to Beethoven. But beyond the supple handling of melodies and momentum that always seemed to be building to a higher level, it was a straightforward interpretation that raced along happily without providing any special depth or insight. The woodwinds were a standout, colorful and vibrant throughout, and if the finale threatened to blow the roof off the Rudolfinum, that was fine with the audience.

An encore finally brought the Filarmonica della Scala back to its home turf – the overture to Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, a perfect choice for the orchestra’s natural strengths. It was an exhilarating ride, animated, mischievous, bursting with a frantic energy that finally seemed appropriate. The trip through Central Europe had been enlightening and entertaining, reflecting the range and competence of a world-class ensemble. But that brief taste of the Italian repertoire left me wishing for more of the hometown sound.