"Hrůša conducts Smetana" Review- Má Vlast returns to Symphony Center

On May 18th, 19th and 20th,  Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša led The Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the first performance of Czech composer Bedřich Smetana’s monumental “Má Vlast” (“My Country”) to be heard at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan in 25 years; it’s only the 6th time the 6 part symphonic poem has been played here in 125 years.

Jakub Hrůša conducting The Prague Philharmonia; photo courtesy of The Chicago Symphony Orchestra

In 2010, Supraphon recorded a live CD of the Prague Philharmonia under the baton of then 28 year-old Hrůša performing an intimate and affectionate presentation of the energetic and lively score. 6 years later, in Fall 2016, Tudor released another version with Hrůša conducting the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, which he now serves as Chief Conductor; this version was no less “exuberant”, but filled with more drama.

Conductor Jakub Hrůša; photo by Petra Klackova

At Symphony Center, the confident maestro, who described for “CSO Sounds and Stories” how this music is part of his “upbringing and really in (his) blood”, presented an extraordinary showcase of this masterpiece of his country’s “national musical deity”. Make no mistake about it, however, “Má Vlast”, composed between 1874-1879, communicates an international message of pride and love of homeland strongly enunciated with controlled passion and verve by the CSO.  Each of the segments or poems, all of which premiered separately, when played together as here projected an enormous sympathetic sweep.

 “Vyšehrad” (“The High Castle”), describes a castle on a bluff, the seat of the earliest Czech kings. Played this evening with a double harp arpeggio introduction of naked beauty, it proceeds in a 4-note motif of stateliness and majesty; the harp opening is repeated at the denouement.

"Má Vlast", this score to "Šárka" bears markings by the Orchestra's founder Theodore Thomas and his successor Frederick Stock; image courtesy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

The most popular segment, frequently played alone, is the second poem, “Vltava” (“The Moldau”). Vividly presented as a portrait of this mighty coursing river, it is uncannily reminiscent of the Israeli National Anthem, “The Hatikvah”.  Both were derived from a melody called “La Mantovana”, by Giuseppe Cenci, although the tune appears in old Czech and Romanian folk forms as well. You can hear the glorious waters, hunting horns, celebration.

“Šárka”, named for a legendary bloodthirsty female warrior who massacres the men who betray her after putting them to sleep, is quickly followed by "Z českých luhů a hájů", (“From Bohemia’s Meadows and Fields”).  Filled with snatches of dance and melody after a tumultuous beginning, the two together provide a kind of grim humor amid the many-layered orchestral depths.

"Má Vlast"; Frederick Stock's score to "Tábor", used for the Orchestra's first complete performance of "Má Vlast", given on November 18, 1931, in Orchestra Hall; image courtesy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

“Tábor”, named for a stronghold, and “Blaník”, named for a mountain, composed after a four year break, together portray a portrait of zealous warriors defending to their death. In “Tabór” one can hear the robust clarion calls and hymn tune; in “Blaník”, the fighters sleep in death until symbolically they will be recalled for “the good fight”. The 2 begin with the same shrill opening but “Tabór ends on a defiant and thrilling march, victory through dedicated belief in God and Country.

The conductor, making his debut with the CSO, was clearly inspired, leading from memory, enthused and large in gesture. The CSO was responsive, giving the audience a balanced presentation of color and grand effect inherent in the music itself. This reviewer and the entire rapt audience enjoyed a stirring evening, long on precision and emotionally satisfying.


Maestro Jakub Hrůša; photo by Zbynek Maderyc

For information and tickets to all the great programs and concerts of The Chicago Symphony, go to the CSO website




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