Talk about a spectacular finale: PKF – Prague Philharmonia finished the season with a monster storm, a fire alarm and some pretty good music, too. With Music Director and Chief Conductor Emmanuel Villaume on the podium, the orchestra offered a bracing look at where itʼs been, where itʼs going and what an ambitious mid-sized ensemble can do with a large production piece. The offstage dramatics werenʼt planned, but they helped set the tone for an exciting evening.

Emmanuel Villaume
© Václav Hodina

Debussyʼs Prélude à lʼaprès-midi dʼun faune opened the program, providing a soothing respite for concert-goers caught in a freak thunderstorm that lashed the streets with hail and high winds while the sun continued to shine. Many were still drenched when the opening flute solo sounded – tranquil, dreamlike, an enchanting reverie that slowly blossomed into shimmering hues. Under Villaumeʼs baton Faune was a study in atmospherics, with expert layering, sensitive shifts of color and mood, and a radiant glow in the woodwinds. At its best the Prélude has a magical quality, and the orchestraʼs ability to capture that is a measure of how far it has come with Villaume, who has grown PKFʼs versatility and sharpened its musicianship in his four years at the helm.

Mozartʼs Symphony no. 29 in A major took the orchestra back to its roots – specifically, the training provided by founder and conductor Jiří Bělohlávek. His focus was the Central European sound and repertoire, and no matter who is on the podium, that is still embedded in the orchestraʼs DNA. It comes to the fore in pieces like this, which evoke the elegance and style of Vienna – at once grand and intimate, bright, graceful, champagne-light on top but with serious depth and the spark of invention. Villaume favors an up-tempo approach to the classics, which in this case added brash, even mischievous touches to an exhilarating, spontaneous sound.

PKF – Prague Philharmonia
© Václav Hodina

Gabriel Fauréʼs 1890s Requiem in D minor is atypical of the genre. In his version, sections of the standard Catholic Mass for the Dead are shortened or cut altogether, and two of the seven texts are taken from the burial service. Most significantly, the prevailing mood is not one of sorrow, but of the solace of eternal rest and promise of a rewarding afterlife. Villaume struck this tone in the opening horn blasts, which were like the gates of heaven opening, followed by celestial grandeur in the choral Introit et Kyrie. Superb control of the dynamics and a pronounced undertone of uplift and optimism maintained that feeling throughout the entire piece.

The soloists were hometown favorites: soprano Kateřína Kněžíková and baritone Adam Plachetka, both of whom were opera stars in the Czech Republic before moving on to bigger stages, which in Plachetkaʼs case now includes regular appearances at the Metropolitan Opera and Vienna State Opera, where he is a company member. Kněžíková made the most of her brief segment with rich, compassionate singing, and Plachetka showed his growing sophistication with a polished, tightly controlled performance.

Fauré's Requiem in the Rudolfinum's Dvořák Hall
© Václav Hodina

As good as the soloists were, the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno may have been even better. The emotional quality of the singing, which covered a gamut ranging from hopeful prayer to hard-edged despair, was captivating, and the complex, colorful shadings in the sound were dazzling. With Villaume, Kněžíková and Plachetka all seasoned opera veterans, the piece had a narrative quality that was supported by the choirʼs powerful, dramatic surges. The final movement, In paradisum, starts like a murmuring stream and flows gently to a shining place of peace. That left the audience literally breathless – it was a long few moments before the spell broke and the hall erupted in enthusiastic applause.

The volume and intensity of the Requiem was such that few listeners noticed a brief burst from the fire alarm in the hallway, set off by overeager caterers preparing crème brûlée for a post-concert reception. Amid a reunion of musical friends and the afterglow of a successful season, it was an amusing footnote and yet oddly appropriate – an exotic French flavor in a traditional Czech setting, and an unmistakable signal that something special was happening. Like the Requiem, PKF is looking up and ahead, already well into planning its next big step, staging Beethovenʼs Ninth Symphony at a sports arena in Prague in the fall. If anyone can serve a musical crème brûlée for 4,000, itʼs this band.