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Jiří Bělohlávek and the NSO

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.

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Martinů, Symphonies, BBC Symphony Orchestra, J. Bělohlávek
(Onyx, 2011)
I came for the Bohuslav Martinů, heard it, and was conquered. I apologize for the campy gloss on Julius Caesar’s famous "Veni, vidi, vici," but I needed to say something special about what turns out to be the National Symphony Orchestra's debut of Martinů’s Sixth Symphony, Fantaisies symphoniques. I like to think that Washington, D.C., is not a provincial place, but then how is it that the NSO had not played this 1955 composition until the evening of November 19, 2015, at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall? No matter, it was worth the 60-year wait, because this is a brilliantly fantastical piece of music.

World War II drove Martinů from Europe to America, where he undertook, after the age of 50, the composition of his six symphonies. He largely shed the Baroque forms and sewing machine music that he had indulged in earlier, and let his inspiration find its own unique shape from the Moravian melodies he used and the extraordinary kaleidoscopic colors he drew from the orchestra. In the mid-1940s, Martinů told his biographer, “From now on, I’m going in for fantasy.” And he did. It is quite difficult to describe exactly how Martinů’s best music from this period, like the Sixth, works. Not even he knew. Concerning the Fantaisies Symphoniques, he said: “Something holds it together, I don’t know what, but it has a single line and I have expressed something in it -- the future will show.”

Like his countrymen Leos Janáček’s, Martinů’s music seems to function by building up large mosaics of fragmentary, repetitive motifs. Short motivic phrases are relentlessly repeated out of sheer excitement or to create tension. Martinů uses accelerating rhythms and rising volume of sound to propel his abbreviated motifs in a scalar ascent, at the top of which a melody erupts and sweeps all before it. Out of the swirling strings and gurgling winds, a broader theme invariably arises. These melodic moments provide both relief from the tense buildups and exhilaration at their resolution. One perceptive critic noted that “no matter how rhythmic Martinů tries to be, lyricism keeps breaking through.”

Making up for lost time, the NSO engaged Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, an acclaimed specialist in Martinů’s music (Complete Symphonies, BBC Symphony Orchestra -- Onyx 4061), to bring us the Sixth. This symphony must snap, crackle, and soar to work. It did under Bělohlávek’s direction. Martinů created what sounds at times like the musical equivalent of a beehive -- the music swarms and buzzes with great excitement, and then gets whacked, usually by the timpani. These alarming moments were perfectly captured, but so was the singing lyricism. Because this music is so inimitably idiosyncratic, I was delighted to hear how well the NSO was able to play it in its first time out. It admirably met the challenge, and I’m sure will only improve in the next two performances. All sections of the orchestra did well in this kaleidoscopic music, with special moments for the first violin and principal clarinet. I also have to say the timpanists did an excellent job in contributing to Martinů’s shimmering sound.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Czech guest conductor leads pianist Igor Levit in strong debut at NSO (Washington Post, November 20)

David Rohde, The National Symphony Orchestra with Guest Conductor Jiri Belohlavek and Pianist Igor Levit (D.C. Metro Theater Arts, November 20)
Suitably enough for a conductor born in Prague, Bělohlávek began the evening with Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony No. 38. Bělohlávek took a relaxed approach to the music. On an interpretive scale going from the jittery, driven approach of Charles Mackerras to the mellow operatic approach of Josef Krips, Bělohlávek clearly favored the latter. Some might have found it a bit lacking in spirit, but it did give the opportunity to savor the inner voices.

After intermission, pianist Igor Levit joined the NSO to play Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. I cannot say I was thrilled with this programming. Couldn’t we have heard more Prague music, for instance, one of Martinů’s sadly neglected piano concertos? I admit that only the greatest playing could’ve captured my attention for another Fifth. There is nothing wrong with what I heard, except for the soloist and orchestra occasionally being out of sync with each other, but I was not mesmerized until halfway through the second movement, and then suitably energized. However, the combination of power and poetry that characterizes the very greatest performances of this great music was not quite there, notwithstanding the standing ovation.

In any case, go for the Martinů. By itself, it’s very much worth it, and it might be another 60 years before you get another chance.

This program repeats tonight and tomorrow.

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