“Maybe it’s the California in me,” David Robertson says of the special chemistry he enjoys with the Czech Philharmonic. Whatever it is, the orchestra plays with uncommon élan when Robertson is on the podium, even – or maybe especially – if the music is Modern. The conductor’s affable, easygoing manner may seem an unlikely match with the exacting demands of Modern fare. But in a Prague Spring Festival concert featuring 20th-century American composer Charles Ives, both the conductor and the orchestra showed considerable expertise and sensitivity in bringing his music to life.

David Robertson and Ivo Kahánek
© Ivan Malý

Robertson is actually a lifelong devotee of contemporary music, an interest he attributes to growing up near Hollywood, where European exiles like Stravinsky, Steiner and Korngold were working. He received most of his musical training in Europe, becoming a bridge of sorts between the Old and New Worlds, schooled in the European style and well-versed in the American repertoire. Those twin strains were clear in the smart, fresh sound he elicited from a deeply traditional orchestra.

The first half of the performance was a work of art. It opened with Ives’ The Unanswered Question, a six-minute piece that consists mostly of soft, sustained strings. On top of that, a solo trumpet repeatedly plays a five-note motif – which Ives called “the perennial question of existence” – answered by a quartet of flutes. The exchange becomes increasingly agitated and dense, with no final resolution. Simple on its face, the piece presages innovations in 20th-century composition and takes on philosophical dimensions in the right hands. Robertson elicited muted tension from the strings and sharp outbursts from the trumpet and flutes, drawing on the orchestra’s natural musicianship. The performance left the entire hall hanging on the existential brink.

With barely a break, Robertson launched directly into the second piece, Movis, a piano concerto by contemporary Czech composer Michal Rataj. It picked up where Question left off, with quiet repeating chords in the lower register of the piano, then quickly blossomed into a percussion-driven excursion through Modern music, jazz, improvisation and sonic effects. Rataj’s usual métier is electronics, often in unorthodox pairings with orchestral instruments. He also changes rhythms frequently, as if daring a large ensemble to keep up. The orchestra proved more than willing to meet the challenge, gliding, marching and soaring through crashing waves of sound, handling the abrupt transitions from whispering to shrieking with alacrity.

Ivo Kahánek and Michal Rataj
© Ivan Malý

Soloist Ivo Kahánek showed the same versatility. A gifted player in mainly the Romantic repertoire, Kahánek brought elegance to the cascading piano lines and a contemporary sensibility to the piano’s increasingly aggressive role, which culminates in an extended improvised cadenza. Kahánek hammered away with focused determination and good humor, posing a different type of question: How outrageous can you get?

If Movis didn’t answer Ives’ larger question, it did suggest that life is a wild ride, one that doesn’t always make sense but can be experienced and enjoyed on a more instinctive, emotional level. As a package, the two pieces were a bold pairing that added unusual and satisfying depth to the program.

After all that, Ives’ Symphony no. 4 seemed anticlimactic – an odd thing to say about a sprawling work typical of the composer’s penchant for incorporating everything from hymns to literary references in his music. The martial rhythms were particularly pronounced in this interpretation, which played to the orchestra’s strengths, with Robertson giving free rein to expressive melodic passages and explosive dynamics. He also did a fine job incorporating the brief choral passages at the beginning and end of the piece, with the Prague Philharmonic Choir turning in another electric performance.

If the symphony lacked the audacity of the first half, it was nevertheless a rich, well-crafted representation of a composer whose work and influence remain underappreciated in the Old World. A powerful advocate from the New World forged a eloquent voice for him in a performance that was anything but easygoing.