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The programme for the Velvet Revolution Concerts includes 20th century works composed under difficult circumstances or with a troubled fate. Jakub Hrůša put together an original “Slavonic” programme of early works by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Leoš Janáček, and Witold Lutosławski (Poland), who faced censorship because of artistic and civic ideals.
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 (33')
— Intermission —
Suite for orchestra, Op. 3 (14')
Concerto for Orchestra (28')
Capriccio notturno e arioso
Passacaglia, toccata e corale
Yuja Wang piano
Lukáš Vondráček piano
Jakub Hrůša conductor
The idea of regularly presenting Czech Philharmonic concerts connected with the themes of freedom and democracy emerged several years ago for a simple reason: the orchestra wanted to create a tradition of special artistic events that would remind audiences of important milestones of Czech history—the protests of the 17th of November (1939 and 1989) and the circumstances surrounding them, their goals, ideals, and moments of tragedy and triumph. On a more general level, the idea was to present the works of composers whose music and lives were in some way marked by the struggle for freedom or recognition.
Ultimately the concert planned for last year at the Rudolfinum with an impressive programme (Miloslav Kabeláč: The Mystery of Time, Dmitri Shostakovich: Leningrad Symphony) did not take place because of emergency public health measures, but Czech Television did carry a broadcast of Smetana’s Má vlast under the baton of the Czech Philharmonic’s chief conductor Semyon Bychkov. Of course, Má vlast is one of those compositions that has a rich history of performances of all kinds and that has assumed a symbolic role, often being heard on ceremonial occasions or even at turning points of history. Clearly, the themes of freedom and democracy can be viewed from different perspectives in music, so there is plenty to choose from for programming.
Following recent debuts with the Chicago, Pittsburgh and London symphony orchestras, Lukáš Vondráček has a season packed with highlights ahead of him. In 2021/22 he will debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at Hollywood Bowl and return to renowned orchestras such as Baltimore and Chicago symphony orchestras, both under the baton of Marin Alsop. Elsewhere Lukáš Vondráček will appear with Orchestre National de Lille conducted by Lionel Bringuier, Warsaw Philharmonic as well as the Turku and Malmö symphony orchestras. Recital projects will take him to the Rudolf Firkusny Piano Festival at Prague’s Rudolfinum and the Kissinger Summer Festival. He will take his residency with the Janáček Philharmonic into the next season and continue his recording cycle of all Rachmaninov Piano concertos with Prague Symphony Orchestra.
Over the last decade Lukáš Vondráček has travelled the world working with orchestras such as the Philadelphia, Tasmanian and Sydney Symphony orchestras, Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, Frankfurt Symphony Radio Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, Antwerp Symphony Orchestra and Oslo Philharmonic under conductors such as Paavo Järvi, Gianandrea Noseda, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Marin Alsop, Christoph Eschenbach, Pietari Inkinen, Vasily Petrenko and Jakub Hrůša, among many others. Recitals have led him to Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, the Flagey in Brussels, Leipzig’s Gewandhaus, Wiener Konzerthaus or to the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.
At the age of four Lukáš Vondráček made his first public appearance. As a fifteen-year-old in 2002 he made his debut with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Vladimir Ashkenazy which was followed by a major US tour in 2003. After finishing his studies at the Academy of Music in Katowice and the Vienna Conservatoire, he obtained an Artist Diploma from Boston's New England Conservatory under the tutelage of Hung-Kuan Chen, graduating with honours in 2012. His natural and assured musicality and remarkable technique have long marked him out as a gifted and mature musician. He has achieved worldwide recognition by receiving many international awards, foremost the Grand Prix at the 2016 Concours Reine Elisabeth in Brussels.
Jakub Hrůša is Chief Conductor of the Bamberg Symphony, and Principal Guest Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic and the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.
He is a frequent guest with the world’s greatest orchestras, including the Vienna, Berlin, Munich and New York Philharmonics; Bavarian Radio, NHK, Chicago and Boston Symphonies; Leipzig Gewandhaus, Lucerne Festival, Royal Concertgebouw, Mahler Chamber and The Cleveland Orchestras; Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, and Tonhalle Orchester Zürich. He has led opera productions for the Vienna State Opera, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Opéra National de Paris, and Zurich Opera. He has also been a regular guest with Glyndebourne Festival and served as Music Director of Glyndebourne On Tour for three years.
His recording of Martinů and Bartók violin concertos with Bamberg Symphony was nominated for a Gramophone Award, and his Dvořák Violin Concerto CD with the Bavarian Radio Symphony was nominated for a Grammy Award. In 2020, his recordings of Dvořák and Martinů Piano Concertos with Bamberg Symphony, and Vanessa from Glyndebourne, won BBC Music Magazine Awards. Other releases include Dvořák and Brahms Symphonies with Bamberg Symphony, Suk’s Asrael with the Bavarian Radio Symphony, and Dvořák’s Requiem and Te Deum with the Czech Philharmonic.
Hrůša studied at Prague’s Academy of Performing Arts, where his teachers included Jiří Bělohlávek. He is President of the International Martinů Circle and The Dvořák Society. He was the inaugural recipient of the Sir Charles Mackerras Prize, and in 2020 was awarded the Antonín Dvořák Prize by the Czech Republic’s Academy of Classical Music, and – with Bamberg Symphony – the Bavarian State Prize for Music.
The programme opens with Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff’s beloved Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, a work often compared with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s equally famous Piano Concerto in B flat minor (1874/1875) because of its emotional content and wealth of melody. Rachmaninoff came from a Russian aristocratic family, and he exhibited musical talent already as a child. After some less than successful years of study in Saint Petersburg, he transferred to the Moscow Conservatoire, where he came under the powerfully formative influence of the piano teacher Nikolai Sergeyevich Zverev. Rachmaninoff was an outstanding pianist, but he also was drawn to composing and conducting. To him, Tchaikovsky, Arensky, Siloti, Taneyev, Safonov, and Rubinstein were not just famous names, but living figures of musical life he was able to meet in person. By the end of the 19th century he had written his first successful compositions including the opera Aleko, and a promising musical career and fame in Imperial Russia and beyond awaited him. With the help of Dr. Nikolai Dahl, a Moscow neurologist, psychiatrist, and hypnotist, he was able to overcome a severe creative crisis. He finished his Second Piano Concerto and dedicated it to Dahl. After the 1917 revolution, Rachmaninoff and his whole family emigrated from Russia, and he never returned.
The three-movement Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor bears all of the features of a Late-Romantic work, full of melodic beauty, inspiration from folk music, nostalgia, broadly lyrical passages, and also virtuosity. The composer wrote the second and third movements (Adagio sostenuto and Allegro scherzando) in 1900. The songful theme of the slow movement played by the flute, clarinet, piano, and orchestra, is one of the most fervent melodies of the Russian piano literature of that era. The opening movement in sonata-form (Moderato) was the last to be composed in the spring of 1901. Alexander Siloti conducted the premiere of the complete concerto in Moscow that autumn with the composer at the piano.
Although Leoš Janáček was born in the middle of the 19th century and was nearly a generation older than Rachmaninoff, he is mainly associated with the modernism of the 20th century, in which he comfortably held his own alongside representatives of the avant-garde and much younger colleagues. Compared with many of his contemporaries, there is something very pleasingly authentic about this self-made figure, but his journey did not follow a straight path in either his personal life or his career—and there is more that comes to mind than “just” the rejection of Jenůfa by the National Theatre in Prague (1903) or the deaths of both of Janáček’s children, Vladimíra and Olga.
The Suite for Orchestra, Op. 3 (1891) is still remote from the typical musical language of Janáček’s mature period, when—especially in the 1920s—he was creating his most important opuses one after another. He wrote the suite at nearly the same time as his Lachian Dances and the one-act opera The Beginning of a Romance, and the proximity of those works is also apparent from the suite’s motivic material. The first movement (Con moto) draws from scene 5 of The Beginning of a Romance, and the second movement (Adagio) is taken from scene 14 of the same opera. The third (Allegretto) and fourth (again Con moto) movements correspond to the Lachian dances Požehnaný (The Blessed One) and Dymák (The Blacksmith’s Dance). The work as a whole is unified by stylisations and echoes of folk music, which Janáček was constantly studying and collecting. It was a long time before the orchestral suite, sometimes called the Serenade or Composition for Orchestra, was “discovered”. It is said to have been first brought to light in 1924 by Janáčk’s pupil Břetislav Bakala, who was also the first conductor to rehearse and perform it publicly in cooperation with the combined radio orchestras from Brno and Prague. However, it was not until after Janáček’s sudden death that the premiere took place in Brno in September 1928 on the occasion of the Exhibition of Contemporary Culture.
The life of the Polish composer, teacher, and conductor Witold Lutosławski offers enough material for a novel subtitled “Political and Social Changes in Central Europe of the 20th Century and Their Influence on Musical Culture”. Like Rachmaninoff, Lutosławski was also a descendant of landed nobility. The Lutosławski family even lived in Moscow briefly, where his father was engaged in the struggle on behalf of Poland, but after the Bolshevik Revolution he was arrested and executed. The family then returned to their homeland, where the young Witold studied piano, violin, and composition at the Warsaw Conservatoire and mathematics at the university. He completed his piano and composition studies before the beginning of the Second World War. He fought at the front, was captured by the Germans, and escaped. Witold’s brother died in a Gulag camp in Siberia. After the war, Lutosławski again returned to Warsaw, but proponents of the doctrine of “Socialist Realism” soon categorised him as a “formalist composer”, and the situation did not change until after 1953. He was again courageous in taking a public stance in the 1980s, when he supported the Solidarity Movement. He earned many prizes, honorary doctorates, and distinctions.
Lutosławski composed his Concerto for Orchestra (1950–1954) at the suggestion of its dedicatee Witold Rowicki, the chief conductor and music director of the Warsaw Philharmonic. The work was also premiered under Rowicki’s baton in November 1954. During the war, the personnel and resources of Poland’s most important orchestra had been decimated, and the ensemble was now getting back on its feet. The work that Lutosławski wrote for the orchestra is the highpoint the period when he was inspired by folklore, and here specifically by folk melodies from the Mazovia region. The fierce Intrada is reminiscent of Stravinsky or Bartók, and the middle movement (Capriccio notturno e arioso) is a virtuosic scherzo, but what is most important is left for last: the third and longest movement (Passacaglia, toccata e corale). The orchestration calls for large forces including piano, and old Baroque forms are filled with music that employs aleatory and atonality. This is music that is purely modern, emotional, and carefully conceived down to the last detail. The music is not programmatic, but its catharsis is comprehensible to us.