With the return to the Janáček Theatre after three years and with the first foreshadowing of the upcoming celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven's birth, the Brno Philharmonic entered the new year with its traditional, already the 65th New Year concert in history. For this occasion, it chose a programme truly magnificent and appropriate, crowned by the European-famous Ode to Joy. The whole gala evening took place under the baton of Chief Conductor Dennis Russell Davies.
The evening was launched somewhat out of the blue by the unusual and brief Fanfare for the Common Man by Aaron Copland. Due to the line-up of only six brasswinds and percussion instruments, the conductor chose a position in the middle of the orchestra; hence, a number of spectators did not even notice his entrance. People were all the more surprised when the four-minute composition was kicked off by energetic timpani hits. A composition that was created in response to the speech of "The Century of the Common Man" by United States Vice President Henry A. Wallace in 1942, brought into the evening, in addition to a glorious character, also a thematic line of humanism and struggle for freedom. The brass section performed its main melodic role with entire precision and professionalism, and the interplay and purity of all players as a whole, supported by a number of percussion instruments, was evident. The initial unison of trumpets was equally well developed by the horns and the majestic sound of colourful homophony was then sealed by trombones.
After the fanfare, followed by a speech and looking back to the previous year, the American modern was alternated by a domestic composition, the Slavonic Rhapsody by the Terezin composer Viktor Ullmann. This composition, published in 1940, in which the author expressed solidarity with the occupied rest of the republic as well as an encrypted defiance, retained from the very beginning a folklore touch and the Slavonic melody of romanticism, moreover thickened by frequent second runs and harmonies. The dominant feature of the work was the obligato saxophone part performed by Jiří Klement. The beautiful and soft timbre of the alto saxophone, unconventional for the common symphonic line-up, was carried from the rear rows of the stage, but due to its pliable sound, its performance was occasionally overwhelmed by the mild dynamics of the orchestra. The overall impression of this innovative composition was not harmed by it; however, the final scale cadence stood out impressively and, together with the orchestra, brought the work to the end of the first half.
The virtual and real highlight of the evening was Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. Inspired by Friedrich Schiller's poem “An die Freude” [To Joy], Beethoven first planned an independent choir or cantata to set this pleasurable text to music. Eventually, the development of events gave rise to a whole symphony, which only a few years later merged with the choir in the final movement, crossing thus the boundaries of a symphony as a purely instrumental work.
The space on the stage and the arrangement of the ensemble made it possible to excel in the uniform timbre distribution of all instrument groups, among which especially the wind instruments excelled in the overall sound. The performance of the whole orchestra was characterized by professional interplay, even under the not always entirely comprehensible and minimalist gestures of the chief conductor.
Although the spectacular composition promised a true acoustic climax that the audience was not granted in the first half, a small piece was also missing to it in the second part of the concert. This was perhaps caused by the still not really ideal acoustics, which absorbed the expected “wow effect” of the colossal symphony, because the commitment, expressive tendencies and efforts of all performers were clearly evident.
The gradual development of the first swift movement and its clear structure was replaced by a fresh and light second movement, in which the minimalism of conducting gestures was transferred to the dynamics of the orchestra – only in some moments it reached a higher sound level. Unfortunately, the continuity of the symphony before the third movement was disrupted by perhaps too slow an entrance of the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno (choirmaster Petr Fiala) and soloists, as well as by an unwanted applause from the audience. The poetically meek third movement, having a somewhat soporific effect, was eventually replaced by the long-anticipated final movement.
The theme, well known all around Europe, which gradually crystallized from the beginning, became gradually more intense and at the end the audience reached the most impressive climax of the evening. Subsequently, the bass singer Roman Janál entered the developed instrumental stream with his voice balanced and with a convincing performance, which was immediately supplemented by the whole quartet of singers. Featuring Kateřina Kněžíková (soprano), Jana Hrochová (alto) and Richard Samek (tenor), the singers also sounded compact and were not harmed even by their obviously disadvantageous position behind the orchestra. Perhaps only the alto of Jana Hrochová, despite its rich and colourful timbre, slightly vanished in the unified sound of the soloists. With the support of the almost seventy-member choir, which was able to reliably assert itself through its full and solid sound, the varied theme of the European Union anthem then reached the very end of the concert.
The chosen programme was more than ideal for the celebration of the New Year and the beginning of the anniversary year of the great composer, standing out (especially in the case of the symphony) with its significance beyond other concerts of the season. In all respects, the successful performance of the whole evening thus started and perhaps even outpaced the success of the coming year. It was also deservedly rewarded with long standing ovations.
New Year's concert
Fanfare for the Common Man
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Symphony No. 9 in D minor
Kateřina Kněžíková – soprano
Jana Hrochová – alto
Richard Samek – tenor
Roman Janál – bass
Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno
Petr Fiala – choirmaster
Dennis Russell Davies – conductor
Wednesday 1 January 2020