Prague Spring came to Tokyo's NHK Hall on Saturday evening. The orchestra of the Japanese public broadcasting corporation, NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo, under the baton of Pinchas Steinberg gave a spirited rendition of Bedřich Smetana's six-part tone poem Má vlast, the customary curtain raiser on Prague's annual springtime festival. Saturday’s performance was part of a festive occasion in Tokyo as well. The choice to devote an entire concert to this one massive 74-minute homage to Bohemia, its rivers, forests and mountains, was entirely appropriate given that 2017 marks the 60th anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the former Czechoslovakia and Japan after World War II.

© Pinchas Steinberg
© Pinchas Steinberg

The second tone poem, often known outside Czech lands as The Moldau, is named after the River Vltava that flows through Prague. Má vlast is part of Czech national identity, including its pop culture. Every listener to Prague Radio immediately recognizes its opening chords, played on two harps.

Smetana completed Má vlast, (literally “My Country”) in 1875 during a time of rising ethnic nationalism in the Habsburg Empire, taking six long years and losing his hearing in the process. Inspired by Bohemia’s legends and landscapes, Má vlast is filled with traditional musical motifs linked together in a neo-romantic style.

One might think it strange to listen to Czech music performed by a Japanese orchestra led by an Israeli who normally conducts a Hungarian orchestra. Nothing could be more natural given the firm roots of Western classical music in Japan. The NHK SO was established in 1926 and is just one of eight professional symphony orchestras in the Japanese capital; its NHK Hall home is one of the world’s largest concert halls; and its audiences are both knowledgeable and enthusiastic. They responded to Steinberg and his musicians with applause bordering on the rapturous, most of which was deserved.

One could not help being impressed by the attention to detail that marked the dynamics in Vyšehrad, the opening tone poem, based on a tale about an ancient Czech castle. Steinberg’s meticulously applied crescendos and diminuendos enhanced the music with a cinematographic quality, letting listeners experience the turbulent history of the building through sound.

Then unexpectedly, the music became quiet as agile flutes evoked the gurgling of the River Vltava flowing from its source all the way to Prague. One could hear colours thanks to the diligent execution of tone painting by the orchestra. The transition during the Nightfall section exposed some technical issues but nothing so serious as to ruin the experience. With the romantic motif reaching its full potential, ultimately Nightfall became an invitation to fall in love with beauty of Bohemia.

The myth of Šárka a story of struggle and deception, provided the orchestra ample opportunity to display rhythmic precision. Violins were transformed into knives and axes slicing through the air while the brasses blared the sounds of war. The next poem, however, was perhaps a bit disappointing, for in From Bohemia's Woods and Fields, the orchestra did not seem to co-operate with Steinberg as well as in the rest of the performance and apparently had some minor problems with pitch, which was a distraction from the vigorous representation of harvest festival. Then came Tábor, evoking the patriotism and religious fervor of the Hussites. A vigorous march contrasted with gloomier moments representing the ultimate sad end of the Hussites.

The set of six poems culminates with Blaník, which picks up from where Tábor ends, proceeding to a legend about the Hussites who, legend has it, hid inside a mountain to awake so as to be able to protect the country from its future enemies. A romantic dialogue between the wind instruments was probably the most successful part of this entirely enjoyable performance.The orchestra seemed to traverse the mystical atmosphere of the Bohemian highlands. The percussion, notably cymbals and the triangle, performed significantly well in this part, showing their true potential when the Vyšehrad motif returns at the very end this time with all instruments joining in.

Steinberg succeeded to introduce Czech landscapes to Tokyo by means of an aesthetically pleasing performance. For those interested in other types of Czech scenery, among other events marking the 60th anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic relations, Alfons Mucha’s gigantic paintings of Slavic legends are on display at the National Arts Center in Tokyo.