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Czech Philharmonic Marks Velvet Revolution

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

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Smetana, Má vlast, Czech Philharmonic, K. Ančerl
(Supraphon, re-released in 2009)
At the end of a U.S. tour that began in California, with a performance marking the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Czech Philharmonic played a tribute on November 17 for the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the student-led uprising which began on that day in 1989 and led to the election of Václav Havel as president of Czechoslovakia. After a concert in Fairfax on Friday and another at Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon, the musicians and their conductor, Jiří Bělohlávek, were back in the area, seated in the crossing of Washington National Cathedral.

Like many diplomatic events, the ceremony did not begin until some time after its 7 pm start time, and after the performance of the American and Czech national anthems, there were lengthy speeches, by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Czech Prime Minsiter Bohuslav Sobotka, among others. The music that was eventually offered -- the "Vltava" movement from Smetana's Má vlast and a repeat performance of Dvořák's ninth symphony -- had something much more eloquent to say about the ties between Czechs and Americans. If the characterization of the Dvořák as a "hymn to freedom" seemed a bit of a stretch, there was no doubt the two pieces represented Czech culture quite well -- the first evoking the river that flows through Bohemia, and the second premiered here in the United States.

Vltava, or Moldau as it is also known, featured the fluttering sound of the flutes and the silvery lightness of the strings, its principal melody charged with nostalgia and the tidal surges of the conclusion rising and falling beautifully. Bělohlávek gave the orchestra its head for the most part in the Dvořák, often indicating only downbeats, which created a few mis-coordinated spots between sections. The horn solos were sterling, as were the outdoorsy, not to say rustic, woodwinds. The Wagnerian brass were lush at the start of the slow movement, with a bucolic English horn solo, answered so delicately by the strings, and Bělohlávek did not overdo the rests that cut up the end of the movement, deepening the sense of memory, coming in starts. The third movement was sprightly and light, with those clear references to Beethoven's ninth symphony, and the energy was not allowed to flag at all in the triumphant finale, the various themes woven together effortlessly.

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