Jakub Hrůša's BSO Debut
Saturday, March 27, 2021
In an encore broadcast from 2016, the Czech conductor makes his BSO debut in two masterpieces from his homeland by Smetana and Janácek, and Frank Peter Zimmermann is the soloist in Bartók's Violin Concerto No. 2.
Jakub Hrůša, conductor
Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin
SMETANA Šárka, from Ma Vlást
BARTÓK Violin Concerto No. 2
MUSSORGSKY Night on Bald Mountain
JANÁCEK Taras Bulba, Rhapsody for Orchestra
This concert is not available on-demand.
Jakub Hrůša previews the program with WCRB's Brian McCreath:
Brian McCreath [00:00:00] I'm Brian McCreath from WCRB at Symphony Hall with Jakub Hrůša, who is here with the Boston Symphony for the first time, and it's a great pleasure to meet you and it's a real pleasure to hear what's going on in rehearsal this morning. Thanks for taking some time to talk with me.
Jakub Hrůša [00:00:12] Pleasure for me.
BMcC [00:00:14] It's your first time here in Boston, and I wonder how familiar you have been over the years with the sound of the Boston Symphony before arriving here and hearing it in person.
JH [00:00:25] I am pretty familiar with it on the recordings, actually. If I count my hundreds of CDs, a big portion of them would be with the Boston Symphony. I have heard the orchestra only a couple of times live and I've never been to Boston. That means I've never been to Symphony Hall here. So that's a complete discovery for me.
BMcC [00:00:48] And how does it strike you in comparison to the other halls where you've conducted?
JH [00:00:52] It's one of the best halls in the world, that's for sure. It's fantastic that on the stage you get the same image of the sound as in the hall itself. And that's something so valuable for us conductors, because usually it's exactly the opposite. So very often, especially in the opera houses, the conductor gets the worst sound image of all participating. And here it feels very pleasant. It's a cultivating hall. That means it helps everyone playing reach even nicer results. And it has a very beautiful richness of sound and, uh, great volume about itself. Of course, uh, I'm still in the process of, uh, getting familiar with it. So I'm trying to see how much of a dynamic range one can get and things like that. But it's generally a great pleasure to be here.
BMcC [00:01:50] Yeah. So we'll talk about the program and especially the two pieces that begin and end the concert. And I wonder when you first heard that you would have the opportunity to come here, was it something that you really wanted to do to bring Czech composers here to Symphony Hall and work with the BSO?
JH [00:02:10] Well, first of all, only 50 percent of the program is Czech. And, uh, considering how the world works, that means that people very much like to connect their knowledge of people with their knowledge of countries and nationalities and so on. It's a very straightforward way. And of course, it happens to me quite a lot. Sometimes it's a great advantage and sometimes it's a trap because you sometimes think I want to do so much of the other things, but you're asked to do Czech repertoire only. Here, it was the most sensible result we got. I'm not only bringing Czech music, but also Hungarian and Russian music, which is fantastic. And on top of it, the Czech music I'm bringing is unknown, basically, or less known, if you will. There are definitely many people who know it very well, but generally it's not the same as the New World Symphony. And that I find as a meaningful mission, of course. For me, it's the closest possible repertoire with which I've been living since childhood, and for Boston it may be a discovery. So I find that very beautiful and stimulating.
BMcC [00:03:29] Yeah. And, you know, if you are going to choose something from Ma Vlast, I think that a lot of people would have assumed The Moldau come to the top of the list. But you chose Sarka instead. And tell me about that choice. What is it that brought you to that piece for this concert?
JH [00:03:43] There are two answers, among others. One is, it's a masterpiece. And the second, it's a piece which very much fits the character and atmosphere of the other pieces in the program. It's not as easy to put it into words, but the whole program definitely has some wildness and luscious, bloodthirsty aspects about themselves, the compositions. And I think, at least pieces by Smetana and Janáček, have very particular programs, which is full of, kind of... How to say that? I mean, very, almost military adventure, and put in a very cultured way. It's very wild. It describes histories from a long time ago. And in both pieces, programmatically, it's about a fervent and passionate fight of one group against another and, uh, certain love passion involved in all of it. Both of these stories are worth reading before the concert starts or even during. And I spent also minutes long, telling the orchestra what was each piece about, because I think it's completely necessary to get the full message about them.
BMcC [00:05:10] The Janáček that you brought us, Taras Bulba, which is the first time the BSO has played this piece, and so what is it that challenges the orchestra with this piece that they may not have encountered in other music that they've played before?
JH [00:05:28] First of all, Janáček's music, his writing, his way of putting music on paper, is extremely personal and particular and not easy to decipher. I would say that Janáček's music is still easier to listen to than to read. His way of composing was extremely abrupt, immediate, and sometimes so quick and stormy that he, you know, after having finished his work, he left a lot of remnants on the floor. And I think it just takes time to get used to his, as we say, idiom, to his way of composing. And on top of it, it's simply technically very demanding. It's a piece which takes a lot of energy to perform. And there are a lot of particular puzzling rhythms and structures which, when you play just one instrument in the orchestra, are not easy to understand. So it just needs time to settle. And then as soon as it settles, it must take off. So that's what I find difficult about the piece.
[00:06:49] Also, Janáček composes, his sound image is very unlike any other composer. He likes to use instruments in their "edge registers," you know, not normally somehow. So, very high registers of high instruments and very low registers of low instruments. And it takes a lot of effort, actually, to really lift to all details of the characters encoded in music. So that's what I suppose is the challenge we have to tackle.
BMcC [00:07:28] And this really fascinates me because I wonder, in your work with orchestras in the Czech Republic, they, I'm going to presume, maybe play this music more often than American orchestras do. And as a result, I wonder if those instincts for creating the kind of textures you're talking about, creating, the kind of image, as you put it, that you're talking about, does that simply come more naturally to them, and therefore create that image more quickly maybe?
JH [00:07:58] Well, I wouldn't necessarily speak about speed of work because there is some exemplary result here in the States. I mean, you simply put things quickly together. However, I think there are composers such as Janáček who necessarily need a bit more time to digest.
[00:08:17] Janáček in the Czech Republic is a different story because it's a composer who is equally frequently played as Dvořák, for instance. It's just in the same realm of knowledge, and it's taught at schools. So basically the players in the orchestra simply always have some knowledge of how to play Janáček. A majority of orchestral players would have also gone through some chamber music experience or are currently chamber music players as well. And Janáček has written at least the string quartets and some music for wind ensembles, and a lot for brass and so on. So the idiom is known.
[00:09:01] I am happy to say that Janáček, recently, in the last decades, let's say, is much more familiar in Europe in general. It is really due to his popularity, I would even say not exactly the same popularity as Puccini, but really, he would be next to Strauss and Debussy and Britten, one of the most important operatic composers of the 20th century. And the orchestras get knowledge how to play Janáček from there as well.
[00:09:38] I would say, anyway, that a piece like Taras Bulba, which is slightly more complicated than some other scores of Janáček -- for instance, there's this famous Sinfonietta, which is demanding to play but is encoded slightly more easily, there are not so many rather unclear tempo transitions and abrupt changes of character and so on -- but nevertheless, Janáček simply will always remain a difficult composer.
[00:10:12] What I find fascinating here in the States, there is an immediate sense of how beautifully the orchestra gets the rhythms and the structure and the direction of the piece. It's incredibly professional and you can start very, very high, musically. It's interesting -- and I have met that many places in the world -- Janáček kind of opposes this immediate success. It always takes more time to get used to it. But what my experienc is, and I've done it Taras Bulba, mmm, 30 times, that in the end, when the nut is really uncracked and that the whole beauty of the contents can appear, that it's very satisfactory. It's somehow a personally, incredibly powerful experience to get to play Janáček well. And that's what drives me somehow to suggest it, even if I know that it's so difficult.
BMcC [00:11:13] Wow. That is all so fascinating. Thank you for unpacking that. That's really terrific. And as you say, Czech music is only 50 percent of this program, so in terms of the other works, Frank Peter Zimmerman is someone, have you worked with him before? And what is it that he brings to the Bartók Second Violin Concerto that really makes that piece come alive?
JH [00:11:37] We've done many projects with Frank Peter. Actually, he definitely would be one of my most favorite collaborators on stage, definitely so. And what he brings to Bartók, well, he does bring exactly the same thing as into all concertos which I've done with him. And we've done many, starting with Shostakovich and Dvořák and, you know, less usual things like Shostakovich Two as well. We're going to do Prokofiev and things to come, after. He simply plays with the most amazing technique and most amazingly straightforward musicality, exactly what's written. And that I find, it sounds black and white, doesn't it? It almost sounds inappropriate to say that. But you can't imagine how many artists, soloists, because they want to be personal and because we all expect them to bring something personal, how far they get from what's in the music. And Frank Peter never betrays what the composer left. And although someone can find this maybe not as fashionable, I personally believe it's so trustworthy, and so elegant in the end, and so personally satisfying that, connected to his virtuosic violin playing, I just find him really one of the totally best.
BMcC [00:13:30] Yeah, and the Night on Bald Mountain has a connection to Taras Bulba through the author Gogol, and maybe even a little bit of that sort of bloodthirstiness that you described earlier. Is that kind of what's behind the choice of that piece for this program as well?
JH [00:13:43] I think so. I mean, Janáček and his choice of topic for Taras Bulba was very East European oriented, culturally, not politically, but culturally. And we were trying to find some piece to accompany Taras Bulba by the second half of the program, and we thought, I thought and the whole theme of who prepared the program thought, a Russian piece would be appropriate. And I think this wild piece of Mussorgsky, although not in the original version arranged by Rimsky-Korsakov, is just very fitting, also because it finishes -- this particular version of it -- finishes so subtly and so beautifully, with ethereal feeling, which creates a most beautiful bridge into, almost with immediacy, starting Taras Bulba. It's an interesting point about Taras Bulba, it doesn't start with a typical opening. The top of the piece is as if you opened the book on page 10, not on page one. So let's say that Mussorgsky is really a forward, a preface to the next piece of the program.
BMcC [00:15:05] That's a great way to put it, because that's exactly what it feels like. It feels like you just walked in the middle of the story and it's like you turned on the TV in the middle of a show and you're like, "What? I don't know." But page 10.
JH [00:15:16] But, having said that, we must also say that a lot of books have page one to nine, just hopeless.
BMcC [00:15:24] [laughs] Right. Well, I just I can't resist asking one more question, just because you mentioned it before. And I'd really love to hear what it means when you feel like people make associations with you, as coming from Prague and from the Czech Republic and Czech music, and you mentioned that sometimes it's a trap. And does that simply mean that people just expect you to walk in with Dvořák and Smetana? Describe more about how that trap, how you have to navigate through that trap and what you have to do to not fall into it?
JH [00:16:00] Maybe it was a bit strong, the word "trap.".
BMcC [00:16:04] Okay, fair enough.
JH [00:16:04] People say, "pigeon hole.".
BMcC [00:16:05] Yes. "Typecast," maybe.
JH [00:16:08] Well, I think what it needs is intelligence.
BMcC [00:16:12] [laughs] Okay.
JH [00:16:13] I would say it's understandable because the complexity of the world is beyond all capacity of ours to to decode and understand. And if anyone wants to get to know a new artist, it's only understandable that it helps if there is a natural connection with the nationality. And at the same time, I never opposed that nationality. I am not nationalistic, but I am quite proud of the achievements we have in music particularly. I mean, we are a very small country of 10 million inhabitants and consider how many fantastic composers and works belonging to standard repertoire we do have. And it's something which fills me with pride, of course. But I also feel responsible for not only taking care of the well-known aspects and part of the culture, but also bringing to the world something less known about which I am convinced it's a quality. And so the intelligence is needed then to try to suggest meaningful pieces. And at the same time, I have to say that I have never yet met resistance. If the suggestion is really good and makes sense for the community where I come, such as in Boston, I've never seen a situation in which people would have said no, this is simply too unpopular. We just do the usual stuff.
[00:17:51] We only sometimes hear, all of us artists, that the context of the program must be taken into consideration. And if the program must be on a popular side, you just can't put four unknown pieces. But very often, at the same time, I think people expect from us that we come with creative ideas. And so a program like ours is a mixture of those sensible directions. There is a great deal of discovery. There is also something which people very well know, like Mussorgsky's piece, or the presence of Frank Peter. Bartók, too, is also not unknown. And those two sandwiching pieces will be a great stimulation. Also, Janáček may be a bit unfamiliar, but Smetana is completely in the language which all people can immediately connect with. It's simply a masterpiece of the nineteenth century. And everyone with open mind, heart, and ears will be able to get fond of it.
BMcC [00:19:04] Yeah. Yeah, well put, well put. Jakub Hrůša, thank you for your time, and welcome to Boston. It's great to talk with you.
JH [00:19:10] Thank you very much, and looking forward to all adventure here.