PRAGUE – In the gilded Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum, the Czech Philharmonic performed Berio’s Sinfonia for 8 Voices and Orchestra for the first time in two decades. During the labyrinthine third movement that overwrites the Scherzo of Mahler’s Second Symphony with snippets of everyone from Beethoven to Boulez, the newly installed chief conductor Semyon Bychkov led with rhythmic precision while maintaining an air of old-school elegance, now wielding his baton with restrained gestures, now swooping in with his torso like a hawk.
As the Philharmonic embarks on a U.S. tour of 13 cities including New York, Chicago, and San Francisco from Oct. 27 to Nov. 12, it stands on the brink of a new era. Taking the reins this season after the unexpected passing of Jiří Bělohlávek, the Russian-born Bychkov becomes only the fourth non-native chief conductor and music director in Philharmonic history. This year also marks the centenary of Czech independence from Hapsburg rule, lending added significance to the performance of works such as Smetana’s Má vlast (My Fatherland) or Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony, which is sometimes understood as an allegory for the Czech nation’s struggle for identity.
The orchestra is known, not unlike the Vienna Philharmonic, for preserving a specific sound culture that has been passed down through generations. Players are almost exclusively Czech, a phenomenon which was only reinforced by years behind the Iron Curtain. A Japanese player was recently elected to assume the role of principal flute, perhaps slowly reversing the trend (he is about to enter the required one-month trial period).
Bychkov hopes both to preserve the orchestra’s longstanding traditions and to push it in new directions. On the one hand, he compares the Czech Philharmonic’s natural affinity for their national composers to Russian orchestras when they play Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff. On the other hand, he feels that the orchestra shouldn’t be known only for Dvořák and Smetana.
Before Bychkov became chief conductor, he and the orchestra won international attention for the Tchaikovsky Project, a series of concerts and recordings on the Decca label that culminates this summer in a box of the complete symphonies, piano concertos, and other works. Next on the horizon is a series of commissions from 14 different composers.
More than half are Czech natives – the most famous being Miroslav Srnka, whose opera South Pole was performed at the Bavarian State Opera in 2016 – but the selection still reflects Bychkov’s cosmopolitan outlook. The Austrian Thomas Larcher will write a piano concerto for Kirill Gerstein and the German Detlev Glanert plans a Symphony for Prague on the model of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Composers as varied as Bryce Dessner, Julian Anderson, and Thierry Escaich are on the roster, and co-commissions are planned with institutions in Vienna and London.
If the orchestra’s identity is strongly rooted in Czech tradition, the institution can also afford to take risks in programming. While western institutions struggle to build a subscriber base, the Philharmonic saw an increase of over 60 percent between 2012 to 2017 and a 35-percent rise in the number of visitors to the Rudolfinum during the same period.
This hall offers intimacy and rounded acoustics, at least from my place in the parterre at a concert on Oct. 19. Bychkov drew at times slick phrases from the orchestra during Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony but also knew when to pull back and let the principals take the lead. Strings brought not just a rich tone but also striking conviction to the brooding opening movement.
The woodwind chorale that opens the following slow movement showed off the section’s gentle but sturdy quality, while the horns that break through the surface in Brahms-like fashion evoked a sun on the horizon. In the final movement, the orchestra generated an overall sound of both brightness and depth. Bychkov created great tension and drew incisive attacks from the strings and brass in the final stretch.
Perhaps the intensity of his working process came even more to the fore in Berio’s Sinfonia. The performance was at once technically precise and lively, immersing both player and listener in Berio’s multi-dimensional space. The balance of the orchestra with the amplified ensemble London Voices was impeccable in the floating textures of the second and fourth movements. By the fifth movement, instrumental gestures started to make more sense than the gibberish uttered by the singers, reversing semantic expectations.
Can Bychkov move the orchestra further into the international spotlight? His understanding of Eastern European culture and his international experience may be the perfect combination. In an age of rapid globalization, it is refreshing to hear an orchestra that has remained so close to its roots. But as Bohemian-born Mahler once said, tradition is not preserving the ashes, but passing on the fire.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.