Prague Spring finished with a flourish this year, with a favorite son returning to lead a program that neatly balanced tradition and innovation. Longtime devotees still talk wistfully of the days when the festival ended with Beethovenʼs Ninth at St Vitus Cathedral, a performance that had powerful resonance during the dark days of communism. Nearly three decades after the Velvet Revolution, themes of spirituality and freedom still hold great appeal, especially in the hands of Czech performers.

Hila Fahima and Tomáš Netopil © Pražské jaro | Ivan Malý
Hila Fahima and Tomáš Netopil
© Pražské jaro | Ivan Malý

Closing honors went to the Prague Symphony Orchestra, playing in its regular-season home, Smetana Hall. On the podium was Tomáš Netopil, former music director of Pragueʼs National Theater Orchestra and a rising star on the international conducting circuit. Leading a large cast that grew to include the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno and Israeli soprano Hila Fahima, Netopil showed why he has drawn rave reviews for his work as music director of the symphony orchestra and opera house in Essen, Germany.

The program opened with The Fruit of Silence, a prayer by Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks based on a text by Mother Teresa. Vasks was part of a Baltic theme in this yearʼs festival, making his first appearance a few days earlier in a chamber music performance by Baiba and Lauma Skride. They gave poignant voice to Little Summer Music, his invocation of the Latvian homeland. Written in 2013, The Fruit of Silence is more universal in both scope and scoring, with versions for orchestra, a cappella chorus and wordless piano quintet already in global circulation. Netopil gave it lush, sanctified treatment, topped by transcendent vocals from the choir. The scale was grand but the tone intimate, offering the key characteristics of a prayer – hope, humility and serenity.

On paper, Poulencʼs Gloria should be the more religious of the two works, with text taken directly from the Latin Mass. But musically, the piece draws on a variety of sources – the playful second movement, according to the composer, was inspired by the sight of monks kicking a football around a monastery courtyard. The result is a rollicking work of cinematic proportions, with modern melodies and choral invocations changing moods, tempi and textures at a dizzying pace. Keeping the orchestra nimble and light, Netopil gave the piece a sparkling effervescence that still had some depth and bite.

Tomáš Netopil conducting the Prague Symphony Orchestra © Pražské jaro | Ivan Malý
Tomáš Netopil conducting the Prague Symphony Orchestra
© Pražské jaro | Ivan Malý

The conductorʼs opera skills came to the fore in an impressive balance of vocals and music, particularly in the choral passages. He was less successful with the soloist, though to be fair, the high-volume fireworks would probably overwhelm any individual singer. Fahima has a bright and colorful but not very big voice that wasnʼt entirely clear until some solo moments late in the piece. But that did not detract from its operatic sweep and grandeur, nor mar the transparency and coherence that Netopil brought to a sprawling work.

Beethovenʼs Symphony no. 7 in A major offered a riveting combination, the warmth and emotion one expects from the Czechs, and the technical precision and thrilling heroics more typical of the Germans. Conducting without a score, Netopil got the piece off to a thunderous start and maintained dramatic dynamics and an animated spirit throughout, even in the typically doleful Allegretto. The tempo turned rapid-fire and the sound muddied a bit as the volume increased in the final two movements, but overall it was an exciting and very visual reading, with the music fairly leaping from the stage.

And while it wasnʼt the Ninth, there was no mistaking the heady sense of freedom and joy. That touchstone hasnʼt changed. Quite the contrary; in the hands of a new generation, and in combination with fresh expressions of spiritual affirmation, it holds as much meaning and possibility as ever.