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NSO Keeps Things in Czech

After the National Symphony Orchestra's blockbuster performance of Dvořák's Stabat mater on Thursday night, Christoph Eschenbach gave the singers and some members of his orchestra a night off. For this week's B side performance, to match a program of Hungarian dance music and Viennese light favorites in between heavy vocal performances the previous two weeks, Christoph Eschenbach offered an evening of Czech rarities. The evening was slightly long, perhaps one work too many, and at least some were heard to grumble at intermission about the fact that the first half consisted mostly of chamber music. Still, once again, one had to admire Eschenbach for programming works that had not been heard from the NSO in twenty years or, in one case, ever.

The main attraction was two unusual pieces for larger chamber ensemble by Leoš Janáček. Young Czech pianist Lukáš Vondráček was on hand to play the keyboard part in these works, which are sort of like miniature piano concertos with an odd assortment of companion instruments. The Concertino for piano, two violins, viola, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, from 1925, received its debut performance by the NSO. A companion work to Janáček's opera The Cunning Little Vixen, it features the instruments as forest animals: the piano in a frantic monologue with the horn in the Hedgehog first movement; a scurrying, chattering squirrel in Loren Kitt's turn on the piccolo clarinet in E♭; the three strings in discordant owl calls in the third movement; and all of them together in the final movement. It is a virtuosic piece, with a bear of a keyboard part, but it all sounded confident and well coordinated.

The results were less felicitous with Janáček's Capriccio, composed for Otakar Hollmann, a Czech pianist who had lost the use of his right hand due to injuries in the First World War. The part is no less difficult, of course, and Vondráček seemed to have it less assuredly in his fingers, his eyes remaining much more glued to the score. Six brass players (two trumpets, three trombones, and a guest musician on tenor tuba) gave the necessary anxiety to the ostinato figure that haunts the work's opening movements. The flute part, played with clarity by Aaron Goldman, dispelled those worries and took the work into a sort of Pelléas-like Symbolist ambiguity. Thanks in no small part to the leadership of the NSO's new assistant conductor, Ankush Kuman Bahl, the piece held together in spite of a few insecurities.

We probably could have done with only one of the serenades by Antonín Dvořák, although both of them had appeal. The D minor serenade, op. 44, is essentially a wind band piece, with lots of oom-pa-pa accompaniment and echoes of Mozart's Gran partita at some points. Most of the melodic weight falls to the first oboe, and principal oboist Nicholas Stovall was in good form, with strain evident only on some very high notes. If the composer's Stabat mater fell before his first experiments with incorporating folk music into his music, this piece showed some of his first successes in that direction. The serenade for strings, op. 22, was the best known piece on the program, although it, too, had not been heard from the NSO since 1992. Issues of sectional unity and intonation seemed to indicate that more rehearsal time would have been beneficial.

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