Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Hrůša's debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Hrůša's debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Jakub Hrusa conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra and  soloist   Frank Peter Zimmermann , Oct. 13, 2016. Hilary Scott photograph.

Jakub Hrusa conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra and soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann, Oct. 13, 2016. Hilary Scott photograph.

Most conductor debuts are cautious affairs. Circle around the standard repertory, divert attention with a famous soloist, and build a solid relationship for the future. A lot is at stake, after all.

Jakub Hrůša probably didn’t read that memo. Creating a program around his strengths—the richly individualistic music of his Eastern European compatriots—the Czech native Hrůša began what is likely to be a fruitful relationship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday evening at Symphony Hall. The program included works from Smetana, Janacek, Mussorgsky and Bartok.

He did bring along the famous soloist. Although Frank Peter Zimmermann may not carry the top-of-the-line caché of some violinists, the dude can play. And not just in the supremely confident and wildly virtuosic technical sense, but in the let’s make great music together artistic sense. 

An insightful collaborator, Zimmermann played the second Bartok concerto—abetting Hrůša as a leader every step of the way—with assuredness and insight.

A wild amalgam of ideas, strenuous physical demands and exotic sounds, the concerto seems restless. It opens with a long rhapsody, its intervals sounding like pure Bartok. It stays tonal, as does the equally developed second theme, but stretches the limits. 

But the middle movement theme-and-variations, its expanse and creativity cut from a different cloth, calms the mood. Six variations feature the soloist with changing partners—muted strings, winds and harp, snare drum—mainly smaller sections of the orchestra, precisely articulated. The finale returns to the chromatic initial themes, but with altered rhythms.

Zimmermann—listening in, exhorting, perpetually engaged with his stagemates—made the concerto a group affair. His encore—an arrangement of Rachmaninov’s G minor prelude—was ripped out like someone celebrating a terrific performance. It was. 

It was best not to read the liner notes describing the programmatic nature of “Sarka,” from Smetana’s “Ma Vlast,” or Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” or Janacek’s “Taras Bulba.” Circling death, brutality or dangerous magic—the works of Gogol furnished the inspirational backdrop for “Bald Mountain” and “Taras Bulba”—well, it was best to let the music speak for itself.

Working without a score—except for the concerto, which Zimmermann also flipped pages for, a testament to the 80-year-old composition’s still thorny modernity—Hrůša worked confidently. Not a single phrase seemed to go by without some kind of shaping. Usually that would mean over-conducting for an experienced ensemble like the BSO. None of it felt that way. 

This first-ever BSO performance of “Taras Bulba” makes one wonder if this work—like Hrůša himself—won’t be back for repeat appearances. The ominous description of the deaths not only of the title figure but his two sons as well—each death gets a movement—the music belies the gruesome nature of the story. 

Organ swells do create a grim background, but lyric interludes, rhapsodic themes and bright solo passages break the mood. Tamara Smirnova, in the concertmaster’s chair, stood out, as did Robert Sheena (English horn) and William Hudgins (clarinet). Kyle Brightwell (percussion, especially cymbals) had some particularly fine moments here, and in Smetana’s “Sarka” as well.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, under Jakub Hrůša, performs music of Smetana, Janacek, Mussorgsky and Bartok Friday afternoon and Saturday evening at Symphony Hall. 888-266-1200; bso.org


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