Friday, January 30, 2009

Music review: Czech Symphony too hasty, but Frautschi shines

Violinist Jennifer Frautschi.
By Greg Stepanich

PALM BEACH -- Crowded onto a relatively small stage at the Society for the Four Arts, the men and women of the Czech Symphony Orchestra made a casual night of it, dispensing with tuxedos and formal dresses as they presented an evening of attractive, familiar masterworks.

But the concert Wednesday evening by the touring Ostrava-based ensemble had a sense of haste about it, as the orchestra and conductor Theodore Kuchar charged briskly and noisily through its program, with results that were sometimes invigorating and at others regrettable.

The latter was the case as the group accompanied the American violinist Jennifer Frautschi in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (in E minor, Op. 64), one of the most popular of all such concerti. Frautschi is a formidable violinist, technically masterful and capable of bringing a wide range of feeling and nuance to the music.

She played the concerto with a strong, penetrating tone and a style crafted along classic lines, with scant trace of Romantic effusion. Frautschi handled all the difficult virtuoso elements of the piece with aplomb, coming up noticeably short only once in the first movement with some wayward intonation on the leaping A minor question-and-answer exchange before the cadenza.

She also performed the tender slow movement, featuring one of Mendelssohn's best tunes, with a simple radiance that was affecting and lovely. Yet it seemed clear that she wanted to take just a little more time to let the music sing, but Kuchar and the orchestra were pushing her, rushing through the movement and playing too loud in their accompanying role.

That led the movement to lose its sense of contrasting calm with the drama of the first movement and the high spirits of the third, and it also offered a less-than-full picture of Frautschi's capabilities. I would have liked to hear a little more of what this fine player can do with slower, more meditative music, but her chances to do that were short-circuited by Kuchar's off-to-the-races approach.

Things were also on the fast side for the piece that opened the first half, The Moldau, the most well-known orchestral piece of Bedrich Smetana, and one that Wednesday night's audience clearly loved. The spinning notes that describe the origins of the river in the opening bars could be heard with great clarity, and there was much to admire in the way of good ensemble at several moments, in particular the catchy dance tune in the middle as the great river rolls by a peasant gathering. Kuchar didn't even use his baton at this point, simply watching the string section bounce through it, dynamic changes and all.

Still, it sounded rushed, the proof being in the return of the noble Vysehrad theme at the end (it acts as a unifying motif throughout the My Country cycle of which The Moldau is a part); there needs to be a sense of grandeur and arrival at this point, but it sounded more like an afterthought.

But speed was the order of the night: By my reckoning, The Moldau and the Mendelssohn concerto took less than 45 minutes total, which is swift considering a start just after 8 p.m., heavy applause after both pieces and stage rearranging to make room for Frautschi.

Despite all that, this is basically a very good orchestra with a bright, almost brash sound, and there was plenty of aggressive playing in the second half, which was devoted to the Sixth Symphony (in D, Op. 60) of the Czech master Antonin Dvorak.

This is a sunny, positive piece, full of the horn-rich color of Dvorak's orchestral style and the folk-flavored melodies that give his work such distinction. Kuchar and the orchestra began rapidly and roughly, but soon warmed up, with a pleasantly full string sound in the first theme, and some distinguished horn playing in the gentle second movement.

The third-movement furiant, the best-known movement of this piece, was played with great force, perhaps a little too heavily, but with real excitement. The finale was vigorous and well-played, but it also was rather rushed and noisy; the music could have used some more contrast overall to give us a more complete picture of this amiable symphony.

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