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Czech Philharmonic • New York


New York’s famed Carnegie Hall offers series of three-concert residencies only to the world’s best orchestras. To open this prestigious undertaking, the Czech Philharmonic has chosen Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with the American virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma and the first three symphonic poems from Smetana’s cycle Má vlast (My Country). All of this will be heard under the baton of chief conductor Semyon Bychkov.

Programme

Antonín Dvořák 
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104

Bedřich Smetana 
Vyšehrad, Vltava, Šárka from the cycle of symphonic poems Má vlast 

Performers

Yo-Yo Ma cello

Semyon Bychkov conductor

Czech Philharmonic

Photo illustrating the event Czech Philharmonic • New York

New York — Carnegie Hall

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For Czech Week at Carnegie Hall in 2024, the Year of Czech Music, one could hardly begin with anything other than Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana. Dvořák experienced the highpoint of his international career in New York, and Smetana is being celebrated this year for the 200th anniversary of his birth. Smetana’s devotion to the music of his country, led his successors to establish the tradition of celebrating the Year of Czech Music each decade.

In New York, the orchestra will successively perform all three of Dvořák’s concertos. For the first evening, chief conductor and music director Semyon Bychkov has chosen the Cello Concerto, one of the most beautiful but also most difficult pieces in that instrument’s repertoire. A perfect performance is guaranteed by the American virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma, unhesitatingly hailed as today’s greatest cellist by the musical press.

The orchestra will perform the first three symphonic poems from Bedřich Smetana’s cycle Má vlast (My Country). Vyšehrad, Vltava (The Moldau), and Šárka are full of beautiful melodies, but their meaning for Czech citizens and other people runs far deeper. Semyon Bychkov had this to say about it:

“The whole time I was studying it, and I was studying it for months, I became obsessed by the piece. And I was trying to understand it: yes, now I know the melodies, I know how it goes. But why does it touch me so much? And I finally found the answer for myself. It is about a homeland; for Czech people, it is about their own homeland. But everybody else has a homeland, too. It means roots; it means attachment; it is about the homeland (not only for the Czech nation) as we want it to be. But our homeland is not always the way we want it to be, historically. And that brings many different things with it: love, conflict, and pain. Because when a homeland is not as we want it to be, there is conflict, tension, and pain. And that is what I feel in the music. Later on, in 1918, Czechoslovakia became independent for the first time; it lasted only twenty years, then came the tragedy of the Nazis, and when that was finished, there came the tragedy of the Soviets. I don’t know how things were in 1938 or 1942, but I do know how it was in 1968, when the Soviet tanks drove into the streets of Prague. I was not in Prague. I was in Saint Petersburg (then called Leningrad), but I know what I felt and what the intelligentsia felt: shame. And so it was not until the Velvet Revolution that the country became truly independent – truly free. And forever, I hope. Why, then, is Má vlast so contemporary? It’s because the conditions we are experiencing today, particularly in Europe, are precisely the same as in the late 19th century. We have a united Europe, but there are so many tensions! And nationalism has become strong again. It is a reaction, because people are worried that because of globalisation, their individuality will not be important anymore. They don’t want to be like everybody else; they want to be the way they are, but they also want to live together. I think the idea of a united Europe is beautiful if it manages to preserve the national identities of all of the members. And if at the same time it is possible for everybody to live together organically. That, in fact, is again why Má vlast is so contemporary. It’s about us and what we are experiencing today. In the end, this is why it touches me so deeply. It’s Má vlast – My Homeland – my own Má vlast.”

Performers

Yo-Yo Ma  cello

Turning sixty years old this year, Yo-Yo Ma stands among the very highest elite of solo performers and is often called the greatest cellist of the present day. Born in Paris to a musical family of Chinese origin, at the age of five he moved with his parents to New York. He was a true child prodigy, playing the violin and viola from his early childhood before switching definitively to cello at the age of four. When only five he gave his first public performance, and when seven he played for President John F. Kennedy. He is renowned for his diverse repertoire, ranging from the unaccompanied cello suites of Johann Sebastian Bach through film music by John Williams to Chinese folk melodies. He collaborates with numerous first-class conductors, orchestras, and soloists, and has received many prestigious awards including the National Medal of Arts, the Glenn Gould Prize, and multiple Grammy Awards. Most often he plays a precious instrument from 1733 by the Italian master Domenico Montagnana.

Semyon Bychkov  conductor

Semyon Bychkov

In the 2023/2024 season, Semyon Bychkov’s programmes centred on Dvořák’s last three symphonies, the concertos for piano, violin and cello, and three overtures: In Nature’s Realm, Carnival Overture, and Othello. In addition to conducting at Prague’s Rudolfinum, Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic took the all Dvořák programmes to Korea and across Japan with three concerts at Tokyo’s famed Suntory Hall. Later, in spring, an extensive European tour took the programmes to Spain, Austria, Germany, Belgium, and France and, at the end of year, the Year of Czech Music 2024 will culminate with three concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York. As well as featuring Dvořák’s concertos for piano, violin and cello, the programmes will include three poems from Smetana’s Má vlast, Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass for which the orchestra will be joined by the Prague Philharmonic Choir. 

Bychkov’s inaugural season with the Czech Philharmonic was celebrated with an international tour that took the orchestra from performances at home in Prague to concerts in London, New York, and Washington. The following year saw the completion of The Tchaikovsky Project – the release of a 7-CD box set devoted to Tchaikovsky’s symphonic repertoire – and a series of international residencies. In his first season with the Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov also instigated the commissioning of 14 new works which have subsequently been premiered by the Czech Philharmonic and performed by orchestras across Europe and in the United States.

As well as the focus on Dvořák’s music, Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic are exploring the symphonies of Mahler as part of PENTATONE’s ongoing complete Mahler cycle. The first symphonies in the cycle – Symphony No. 4 and Symphony No. 5 were released in 2022, followed in 2023 by Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”. Last season’s highlights included performances of Mahler’s Third Symphony in Prague and Baden-Baden, and during the 2024/2025 season, Bychkov will conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 with the orchestra in Prague, New York, and Toronto, and Symphony No. 8 in Prague.

While especially recognised for his interpretations of the core repertoire, Bychkov has built strong and lasting relationships with many extraordinary contemporary composers including Luciano Berio, Henri Dutilleux, and Maurizio Kagel. More recent collaborations include those with Julian Anderson, Bryce Dessner, Detlev Glanert, Thierry Escaich, and Thomas Larcher whose works he has premiered with the Czech Philharmonic, as well as with the Concertgebouworkest, the Vienna, Berlin, New York and Munich Philharmonic Orchestras, Cleveland Orchestra, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

In common with the Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov has one foot firmly in the culture of the East and one in the West. Born in St Petersburg in 1952, Bychkov emigrated to the United States in 1975 and has lived in Europe since the mid-1980s. Singled out at the age of five for an extraordinarily privileged musical education, Bychkov studied piano before winning his place at the Glinka Choir School where, aged 13, he received his first lesson in conducting. He was 17 when he was accepted at the Leningrad Conservatory to study with the legendary Ilya Musin and, within three years won the influential Rachmaninoff Conducting Competition. Bychkov left the former Soviet Union when he was denied the prize of conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic.

By the time Bychkov returned to St Petersburg in 1989 as the Philharmonic’s Principal Guest Conductor, he had enjoyed success in the US as Music Director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra and the Buffalo Philharmonic. His international career, which began in France with Opéra de Lyon and at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, took off with a series of high-profile cancellations which resulted in invitations to conduct the New York and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras and the Concertgebouworkest. In 1989, he was named Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris; in 1997, Chief Conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne; and in 1998, Chief Conductor of the Dresden Semperoper.

Bychkov’s symphonic and operatic repertoire is wide-ranging. He conducts in all the major opera houses including La Scala, Opéra national de Paris, Dresden Semperoper, Wiener Staatsoper, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and Teatro Real. While Principal Guest Conductor of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, his productions of Janáček’s Jenůfa, Schubert’s Fierrabras, Puccini’s La bohème, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov each won the prestigious Premio Abbiati. In Vienna, he has conducted new productions of Strauss’ Daphne, Wagner’s Lohengrin and Parsifal, and Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, as well as revivals of Strauss’ Elektra and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; while in London, he made his operatic debut with a new production of Strauss’ Elektra, and subsequently conducted new productions of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten, and Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Recent productions include Wagner’s Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival, Strauss’ Elektra and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Madrid. He returned to Bayreuth to conduct a new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in summer 2024.

Bychkov’s combination of innate musicality and rigorous Russian pedagogy has ensured that his performances are highly anticipated. In the UK, the warmth of his relationships is reflected in honorary titles at the Royal Academy of Music and the BBC Symphony Orchestra – with whom he appears annually at the BBC Proms. In Europe, he tours with the Concertgebouworkest and Munich Philharmonic, as well as being a guest of the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Orchestre National de France, and Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia; in the US, he can be heard with the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Los Angeles Symphony, Philadelphia, and Cleveland Orchestras.

Bychkov has recorded extensively for Philips with the Berlin Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio, Concertgebouworkest, Philharmonia, London Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris. His 13‑year collaboration (1997–2010) with WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne produced a series of benchmark recordings that included works by Strauss (Elektra, Daphne, Ein Heldenleben, Metamorphosen, Alpensinfonie, Till Eulenspiegel), Mahler (Symphonies No. 3, Das Lied von der Erde), Shostakovich (Symphony Nos. 4, 7, 8, 10, 11), Rachmaninoff (The Bells, Symphonic Dances, Symphony No. 2), Verdi (Requiem), a complete cycle of Brahms Symphonies, and works by Detlev Glanert and York Höller. His 1992 recording of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin with the Orchestre de Paris was recommended by BBC’s Radio 3’s Building a Library (2020); Wagner’s Lohengrin was BBC Music Magazine’s Record of the Year (2010); and Schmidt’s Symphony No. 2 with the Vienna Philharmonic was BBC Music Magazine’s Record of the Month (2018). Of The Tchaikovsky Project released in 2019, BBC Music Magazine wrote, “The most beautiful orchestra playing imaginable can be heard on Semyon Bychkov’s 2017 recording with the Czech Philharmonic, in which Decca’s state-of-the art recording captures every detail.”

In 2015, Semyon Bychkov was named Conductor of the Year by the International Opera Awards. He received an Honorary Doctorate from the Royal Academy of Music in July 2022 and the award for Conductor of the Year from Musical America in October 2022.

Bychkov was one of the first musicians to express his position on the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, since when he has spoken in support of Ukraine in Prague’s Wenceslas Square; on the radio and television in the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Austria, the UK, and the USA; written By Invitation for The Economist; and appeared as a guest on BBC World’s HARDtalk.

Compositions

Antonín Dvořák
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104

At the end of his stay in America, Antonín Dvořák wrote his Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (B191), his most famous work in the genre alongside his concertos for piano (G minor, Op. 33) and violin (A minor, Op. 53). Yet he had long regarded the cello, an instrument that supposedly “whines up high and mumbles down low”, as unsuitable for solo playing, and he basically discarded his first, youthful attempt at writing a cello concerto. His opinion of the cello changed under the influence of wonderful performers: Hanuš Wihan, with whom he had played in a piano trio during his “farewell tour”, and the American composer and cellist Victor Herbert, Dvořák’s colleague at the conservatoire in New York. Dvořák was truly captivated by Herbert’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 30 (1894). He began work on sketches for his own concerto in B minor on 8 November 1894, just ten days later he began orchestrating it, the score was finished on 9 February 1895, and he made a major revision to the finale after returning to Bohemia.

The concerto consists of the usual three movements: the opening Allegro is composed in sonata form, the second movement (Adagio ma non troppo) is warmly lyrical, and the third movement (Finale. Allegro moderato) has the layout of an extended rondo with motivic connections to both preceding movements. The whole concerto exudes a sense of melancholy and desire for the homeland and for family. At the same time, there is an awareness of the impending return from the labyrinth of the world to the paradise of the heart; the music is very emotional and full of beautiful melodies as well as wonderful orchestration. It is no exaggeration to call it one of the most admired compositions of its genre. Dvořák himself was aware of the concerto’s exceptional qualities, referring to it in a letter to Josef Bohuslav Foerster as a work that brought him “outrageous joy” and that decidedly exceeds his two earlier concertos in importance. The cello and orchestra become such equal partners that the concerto has sometimes been described as Dvořák’s tenth symphony. The music’s intimate message is highlighted by a motif from Kéž duch můj sám (Leave Me Alone), a song in Dvořák’s cycle Four Songs, Op. 82 that was a particular favourite of the composer’s sister-in-law Josefina Kounicová. The motif is heard in the second movement and again in the finale, which was revised after Josefina’s death in May 1895.

The English cellist Leo Stern played the concerto’s premiere on 19 March 1896 in London with the Philharmonic Society under Antonín Dvořák’s baton. Stern studied the new concerto very diligently, being aware that it “is quite unlike any other cello concerto” and “is very difficult as regards intonation”. He acquitted himself honourably, however, so he also played the premieres in Prague (11 April 1896) and elsewhere. Although the Cello Concerto is dedicated to Hanuš Wihan, Prague audiences never heard him play it, a fact explained in part by a dispute over a cadenza, which Wihan wanted to add to the concerto, but which Dvořák resolutely refused. Mostly at fault, however, was Wihan’s busy schedule with commitments to the Bohemian Quartet and the Prague Conservatoire.

Bedřich Smetana
Má vlast

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