|A youthful flair for the Central European repertoire.|
Jakub Hrůša makes a good case for bringing some new blood to the podium. The Cleveland Orchestra attracts a steady string of distinguished conductors – in recent weeks, Marek Janowski and Vassily Sinaisky, with names like Marin Alsop and Pierre Boulez to come. Hrůša, 32, may not have their experience. But the energy and flair that he showed at Severance last week put a fresh, exciting edge on the music.
The opening piece on the Thursday night program, Haydn’s Symphony No. 60, offered a tantalizing pairing: an early classical work rendered by a young conductor schooled in the Old World style. Typically, American orchestras can’t help but put a modern burnish on the Baroque and early Classical repertoire, characterized by a brisk, breezy approach to the material.
With Hrůša setting a spirited but stately pace, a chamber-sized version of the orchestra went deeper, building a rich, refined sound that had both heft and grace. Substantial on the bottom and elegant on top, it carried authoritative weight without losing any of the light, crisp finish. The fourth movement, a rapid-fire Presto, literally sparkled.
Symphony No. 60 started life as incidental music for a play, and as a concert suite it retains a strongly descriptive character. This gives the conductor plenty to work with, and Hrůša took full advantage of the whimsical turns and vibrant colors, showing in particular that he knows how to use the orchestra’s silken strings. The sixth and final movement includes a comic bit where the strings drop the melody and raucously tune their instruments, which Hrůša played off nicely with an exasperated reaction shot at the audience. It was an entertaining finale to a beautifully realized period piece.
Another appeal of visiting conductors is the opportunity to hear their national music, interpreted as only natives can. After intermission, Hrůša led the full orchestra in two Czech works not often heard in this part of the world: Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel and Janáček’s Taras Bulba. Both are vivid, entertaining pieces that deserve far greater exposure.
The Golden Spinning Wheel is one of a trio of symphonic poems Dvořák wrote based on Czech folk legends. It tells the story of Dornička, a peasant girl whose marriage to a king is nearly thwarted by her evil stepmother, until her wicked plan is revealed by the magic spinning wheel. Hrůša painted the story in bright hues with a sound so warm that it might have been a Czech orchestra onstage. The Romantic core of the music is in the Cleveland Orchestra’s wheelhouse, but the narrative flow, copious detail and remarkably light, nimble sound were all Hrůša. It was a captivating performance and a welcome reminder that there is much in Dvořák’s oeuvre to explore beyond the usual symphonies and cello concertos.
Taras Bulba was no less exciting, though not as satisfying. A rhapsody written in Janáček’s distinctive vocabulary, it recounts three dramatic scenes from Gogol’s eponymous novella. The occasionally thin top and ragged edges in this performance suggested that it would have benefited from more rehearsal time – not surprising, given the complexity of the piece. But it retained the brilliant colors and fine transparency of the Dvořák work, with Hrůša giving the dances and battle scenes a majestic, epic sweep.
It’s a shame there were so many empty seats at the concert. This is classical fare that anyone can appreciate – accessible, edifying, thrilling. And fresh repertoire that added some spice to the usual programming. Hopefully Hrůša will be back, bringing a dash of youthful vigor and more authentic Central European sounds.
For more on Jakub Hrůša: http://www.jakubhrusa.com/