Conducting competitions come and go. Some winners occasionally rise. Others sink without trace, for all human decision-making is ultimately fallible. José Soares, who at the age of 23 won the Tokyo International Conducting Competition in 2021, is one of the latest stars in the making. Early signs are propitious. Only time will tell, however, if this particular talent develops and matures.

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José Soares
© Mate Steirer | MÁV Symphony Orchestra

The MÁV Symphony Orchestra of Budapest is unusual in that it was founded by Hungarian State Railways. Since its inception in 1945 it has been nurtured by a long line of illustrious maestri, including Blomstedt, Masur, Simonov and Slatkin. It responded well in Soares’ debut concert at the Liszt Academy. Conducting the entire programme from memory, he exuded an air of quiet confidence from the outset, delivering a clear beat with precise cues, and kept the left hand in check, to be deployed significantly only where it mattered. Solid musicianship is a valuable commodity.

Soares had brought with him a gentle nod in the direction of his Brazilian homeland. Heitor Villa-Lobos composed a series of nine short pieces entitled Bachianas Brasileiras, the last of which was written in 1945 for strings alone. The linking title implies a direct homage to Bach, present in the two movements marked Prélude and Fugue. Soares kept the textures neat and tidy, respecting the neoclassical form, but what struck me especially was how the harmonies and rich chromaticism were much closer to Bartók, helped in no small part by the woody and earthy sounds of the lower strings.

Dvořák’s Cello Concerto is arguably the greatest work for this instrument. Yet it requires a strong sense of personality, if the solo line is not to become submerged in the richly veined orchestration. I would like to think that the soloist here, Michaela Fukačová, herself of Czech origin but now a resident of Denmark, was experiencing an off night. She never looked completely happy during the first movement, her intonation often wayward, and the phrasing much too careful to do full justice to the red-blooded temperament of the narrative line. In the important duet between flute and cello, for instance, it was the woodwind instrument that had the greater projection. Even in the glowing heart of the Adagio, I sensed little personal identification with the music. If at all, Fukačová was communing with herself rather than with her audience. In the Finale too, I missed both the heroic spirit and sharper contrasts for each iteration of the Rondo main theme. 

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Michaela Fukačová , José Soares and the MÁV Symphony Orchestra
© Mate Steirer | MÁV Symphony Orchestra

If Soares could have pared down the dynamic levels of the orchestral accompaniment to allow his soloist more of the spotlight earlier, in Dvořák’s Symphony no. 8 in G major he was happy to let his players completely off the leash. The earthy warmth of Hungarian string playing can be taken almost for granted, with the viola section here producing a consistently deep and burnished quality. In turn, the woodwind section was unfailingly characterful. The big surprise for me, however, was the quality of the MÁV Symphony’s brass section. Hungarian brass players are quite something, fearless in attack and astonishingly secure in execution. When the four trumpets issued their clarion call at the start of the Finale, it would have been enough to wake the dead.

Though Soares knew how to bring the cauldron rapidly to the boil in the symphony’s blazing climaxes, he also conjured up some of the spooky effects that turn much of the slow movement into a nocturne. Interestingly, the Scherzo emerged much less jaunty than in some readings, its mournful qualities picked out as a foil to the brilliant extroversion of the concluding movement.


 Alexander's press trip to Budapest was funded by the Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting