The very first bars of this concert’s opening work, Leoš Janáček’s Taras Bulba, indicated something special. A gentle oboe melody was embedded in placid strings that swelled in volume for a moment, and then dropped again like breath. It sounds simple: a crescendo and decrescendo, yet the execution demonstrated wonderful unity, and a subtle restlessness that presaged the drama to come. In fact, unity — that golden ring forever striven after by music ensembles — would be the first word I’d use to describe Monday evening’s performance. Again and again as I closed my eyes, I felt as though I were in the presence of one mind.
This Santa Barbara concert marked the halfway point for the Czech Philharmonic’s two-week U.S. tour with French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, which ends at Carnegie Hall on November 16. The real culmination, however, will take place the following night at The National Cathedral in Washington D.C., when the orchestra kicks off a 25th anniversary celebration of the Velvet Revolution — the six-week nonviolent protest that ended Communist rule in Czechoslovakia at the end of 1989 — and the legacy of Václav Havel. A bust of Havel by Czech-born artist Lubomir Janecka, will be installed in the U.S. Capital during the three-day event. In short, the evening seemed to brim with democratic and nationalistic pride as Santa Barbara was dealt a blast of authentic Czech brilliance by an orchestra inaugurated under the baton of none other than Antonín Dvořák. Chief conductor and music director Jiři Bĕlohlávek appropriately weighted the program towards Czech compositions of grand scope and orchestral color, beginning with the Janáček and ending with Dvořák’s iconic symphony “From the New World.” The latter is practically a necessity for this tour — commissioned by the New York Philharmonic while Dvořák was director of N.Y.’s National Conservatory of Music, and inspired by Native American and African American music. Thibaudet took to the keys for Piano Concerto No.2 in A Major by Franz Liszt, and the evening was rounded out with an inspiring encore by Dvořák’s and Janáček’s pioneering predecessor, Bedřich Smetana.
If the solo piano works of Liszt are your reference, it might be difficult to identify Piano Concerto No.2. Though its lush romanticism demands piano virtuosity, the keyboard is merged closely with the orchestra, often taking on the role of accompanist. It is a work of continuous surprises, and one that Thibaudet knows well. His energetic and commanding performance aroused a passionate ovation.
CAMA continues to be the chief benefactor for giving access to international wonders like the Czech Philharmonic. What good fortune for Santa Barbara to be included in the sounds of this historic tour.