A Czech Musical Postcard, with Jakub Hrůša
Saturday, September 10, 2022
The Czech conductor returns to Symphony Hall to lead the BSO in a celebration of Czech music through Janáček’s Jealousy and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6, juxtaposed with Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 featuring the BSO debut of Lukáš Vondráček.
Jakub Hrůša, conductor
Lukáš Vondráček, piano
RACHMANINOFF Piano Concerto No. 2
DVOŘÁK Symphony No. 6
This concert is no longer available on demand.
Concert originally broadcast live from Symphony Hall on Saturday, February 5, 2022.
Hear a preview of this concert, in which Jakub Hrůša describes the character of Janáček’s Jealousy, why he loves to perform Dvořák's Symphony No. 6, and recounts the origins of his artistic collaboration with Lukáš Vondráček with the audio player above.
Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Jakub Hrůša, who's here for the second time. Jakub, thanks so much for your time today, I appreciate it.
Jakub Hrůša My pleasure.
Brian McCreath So you were here about, a little over five years ago, and at that time you had brought along [Janáček's] Taras Bulba, which the BSO had never played before. So now you're two for two, bringing Janáček with a new piece the BSO has never done before. So thank you for that. It's Jealousy that is the piece that the BSO hasn't done before. A change of program, we can talk about that; we had to unfortunately let go of the Glagolitic Mass. But we're very fortunate to have this, at least, short piece by Janáček. When we talked before, when you were here before, we talked a little about that character of Janáček's music that has to do with Czech speech. And I wonder if that is in any way reflected as well in Jealousy.
Jakub Hrůša Yes, I think so. I mean, this piece is a little less original because it's an early piece. So it stands somewhere close to Dvořák, actually, which makes the bridge to the second half of the program very natural. And as the listeners might know, it is the original overture to the opera Jenůfa. And I mean, this opera and the overture as well, that was about the time when Janáček was finding, or had found, his original voice, but not yet as much as in the pieces coming later. But what you asked about is definitely always the case. I think the reason why Janáček found his voice so beautifully is, to some extent, really he's discovering the potential of folk culture, which means folk music, folk dances, and, of course, also stories and the language.
You know, he was a late incomer into this national renewal movement, which, in the environment surrounded by a German culture, really found its potential in the genuine culture of the country and Slavic speaking, Czech speaking. And so this is the case, too. But I wouldn't read into it too much. I think the listeners should know, or would have noticed, that this piece sounds really as a beautiful piece of Romantic music. It's rather edgy and has a lot of impulse and drama and accents and sudden changes, which is typical for Janáček. But it's by far not a foreign language. It simply belongs to the tradition of Central European music of that time.
Brian McCreath And I'm so interested in that because it does seem like a perfectly wonderful way to begin almost any concert, really. And I just, you know, the first time here at the BSO, it's not a piece that I had run across before. If we were in Prague right now, is it a piece that people would generally know already? Or is it simply not played enough?
Jakub Hrůša It is played occasionally. I mean, it's interesting, you say it's an ideal opener. It is, except for it's a little too short for the piano to be moved on stage then afterwards. [laughs] I say, joking, it's a perfect piece for the late-comers, you know. [laughs] Because it's very powerful. It's very beautiful. But if you come late to the concert, you just wait five or six minutes... and, you know, that's not possible in Mahler 2 a Mahler 3, then you have to wait half an hour.
No, you asked if it's played much. Not as much, but it would be simply registered. I mean, it's definitely not played as much as Glagolitic Mass or Sinfonietta or Taras Bulba. Or not as much as his operas in the opera houses. But it's a good overture, simply. And I'm very happy that we could retain at least a bit of that language, that culture, despite the fact that we lost Glagolitic Mass.
Brian McCreath Yeah, yeah. The Dvořák 6th Symphony, also not one that's done as commonly, it's maybe not a rarity, but it's not done as commonly as his later symphonies. So in that sense, it is like the Janáček, that it's coming from a time that we don't often hear from in this composer's own particular life. Tell me what the Dvořák 6th brings us from Dvořák that maybe, maybe the 7th, 8th, and 9th, that are more common, don't necessarily bring us.
Jakub Hrůša I don't know if this symphony brings something those later symphonies simply don't have. Maybe, it's even closer to the Slavic background. I mean, the Scherzo, for example, which is for the first time when he used this dance, which is called Furiant, is kind of a very energetic dance, which, in a syncopated way, changes impulses so that, you know, it's actually rhythmically rather close to what was starting to happen here in this country then in the 20th Century, you know, like shifting the accent, what jazz brought later. Of course, it's by far not jazzy at all. But this idea that you play with the rhythmical impulse is there. And it's very immediate, and it's very charming. It could be one of his Slavonic Dances. So I think it's a representation of this mid-period of Dvořák's life, where similarly to what we said about Janáček, he found his voice.
He distinguished himself from the, you know, new German tradition, in which idiom he, before, you know, his music, sometimes sounded a bit like Wagner, Bruckner, a little bit like Schumann. You know, all these influences were very present. And then suddenly he learned how to be more economical about his talent, you know, because Dvořák was a composer who had so many ideas, and he was constantly inspired to write something. And I think what he lacked before he got to this mature period was the economy of usage, you know? I think he used too much, too many things. He was a little bit eclectic. And I think on the influence of Johannes Brahms, and a good influence, he learned how to focus more.
And I think although this symphony is not yet as focused as the 7th, for example, it is the first piece of his where we really understand the form and the message somehow without any doubts where the music is aiming to. You know, it has a very good momentum. And for me, if you ask me personally, I very much like this piece just for a very obvious and almost simple, black-and-white reason, because it really brings an incredibly positive energy into a concert hall. I mean, Number 7 is darker, Number 8 is also to some extent melancholic, and it's a little closer to a suite. Some people even say it's not really a typical symphony. Number 9 is Number 9. We don't need to speak about the one, "From the New World." But Number 6, somehow, always, you know, brings a spark into the concert hall, which is very beautiful and which I like. So I like to bring this piece because it brings with it some certain vibe, which we, especially in these times, we need these merry, invigorating, you know, impulsive, good thought-provoking pieces.
Brian McCreath I was just going to say that the way you describe it seems like, this is what a lot of us need right now. Just something that's really beautiful, really bright, really optimistic, gives us energy. And so I hear exactly what you're saying.
Jakub Hrůša I think usually the very critical minds in the orchestra or the critics or whoever it is, musicians, tend to say, Hmm, it's maybe a little talkative, maybe it's a little, you know, too many diversions in the progress of musical thought and so on. But I think, first of all, it's typical Dvořák, that he is not so preoccupied with rational thought. I mean, he is more intuitive and spontaneous. And that's what makes it so interesting, that after you hear a piece by Johannes Brahms, you are impressed by the perfection of every single component. But if someone asks you about - putting the Hungarian Dances in brackets - if someone asks you, could you just sing the tune of that piece, which you've heard? It's often very difficult because it's somehow too cheap, maybe, for Brahms to use a simple tune. Of course I am now, everything is generalized, what I say.
Brian McCreath Of course. [laughs].
Jakub Hrůša I'm trying to bring the attention closer to the topic. Well, with Dvořák, you know, you have many which you just whistle on your way home if you have a good musical sense and memory. And so I think that's exactly what this piece represents, without compromising the compositional quality in any ways.
Brian McCreath Sure. Yeah, absolutely. Another lovely thing you've brought along with you, because it was a last minute change, with the change of the [Glagolitic] Mass, is our soloist, Lukáš Vondráček. And I wonder what your history is with him, how often you've worked with him, and especially what it is that he brings to Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto.
Jakub Hrůša Very happy to answer this. So first of all, our history is, as I was starting conducting, I mean in the early 20s of my age, he also was getting really recognized as a young star of Czech piano playing, although with complication, because after he spent his childhood in the Czech Republic, he went here to the United States to study here, and then was kind of coming back home from here. And back then, we performed together, I think we did Tchaikovsky, the B-flat Minor Concerto, and I think it was for the first time I conducted that. And he was a teenager - he is a bit younger than I am. And I remember that especially beautiful.
But then we met once more for a Dvořák Concerto in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra. And then for a long time, somehow our paths didn't cross. And lately he became more present in the Czech musical scene. And I went to one of his concerts where he didn't actually play what's typical for him, this grand Romantic concerto, but he played chamber music with some fellow musicians, string players. And I tell you, it doesn't happen to me so often, but I was so incredibly impressed by what he did. He charmed me completely. It doesn't happen to me really every day, because what I heard was, and I told him backstage afterwards, I went to see him and told him, I am hearing an ideal orchestra under your hands. And of course, it's a little metaphor. I mean, no piano can create colors which orchestra can. But you know, what I wanted to express is that the range of expression, colors, force against intimacy, you know, momentum against calmness, that universe, which we all of us musicians really find as our ideal, you know, I found that all in his playing. And I thought, I want to play with this guy very often from now on, and I told him, and we had a beautiful party, many of them, and I told him, Look, I'm going to try to see chances to play together because this is something very, very precious to me.
And Rachmaninoff 2 was done by chance recently by Lukáš and me in Prague with the Czech Philharmonic. We had this concert to the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, for the change of from Communism to this era. (That was in 1989.) And, actually, I invited him to replace Yuja Wang, who was originally scheduled to do that. And she couldn't because she was ill. And we did this piece. And of course, we all were unhappy that Yuja couldn't come. By the way, I'm doing stuff, I hope, with her next week, with the New York Philharmonic. But we all were so impressed by Lukáš's Rachmaninoff 2.
And, you know, this music, just in two sentences... Very often you hear it either too sloppy, oily, heavy, you know, tasteless, like, it's one of those cases, which for me, it tends to be too sentimental very often. And on the contrary, when someone wants to oppose this, it may tend to be too dry or too much lacking emotion. And for a long time, I was searching for someone who can combine those two aspects, which the piece needs. You know Romanticism and structure, you know, force and delicacy at the same moment. And I found that person in Lukáš.
And the last word. He has an incredibly sensitive ear to the orchestra. So actually, it's a very beautiful task to accompany him because I'm listening carefully, I love accompanying any time. But with him, we don't need to speak about anything before we go there. We just have our ears especially, you know, open and sensitive. And it all works. And so I hope, it seems like the rehearsals went very, very well, and I hope everyone here in Boston enjoys his playing as much as I do.
Brian McCreath That's fantastic. And actually, as you were describing your experience hearing him in chamber music, the thoughts going through my mind are, this is what we need in Rachmaninoff's 2nd. We need that sensitivity, but also the power. We need the range of color. All of those things are so necessary in that piece to get to where you're talking about.
Jakub Hrůša Yes, I think such a piece needs to be absolutely in charge of the instrument also. You know, it needs really to have a guy who is capable of playing a piece even twice or three times more difficult than that. And then it enables him or her to relax in the piece and really follow the very fine musical thought. And I think that's what's happening.
Brian McCreath Wonderful. Jakub Hrůša, so good to have you back. I can't believe it's been over five years, when I looked back at our records. But here you are, and it's great to have you here. I'm so glad
Jakub Hrůša It's taken some time, but my first visit was very beautiful here, and we kind of knew we would meet again. But it just took a longer time than usually it does. So I'm happy I'm back.
Brian McCreath Wonderful. Thank you very much.
Jakub Hrůša Thank you.