We are undoubtedly going to attend more than a few excellent symphonic concerts during the calendar year 2017, but we would not be at all surprised if none of them are as superbly presented as the one offered late last month by the PKF—Prague Philharmonia. The concert, at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis) was a sold-out affair, and we doubt that anyone in the audience left the hall disappointed (even if a hoped-for encore was not played).
The orchestra is small compared to others that have international reputations. For this concert, only 64 musicians were on the Jackson Hall stage. They were conducted by Emmanuel Villaume, who is now in his second full year as the music director and chief conductor of the organization. Mr. Villaume is tall, a fact that was evident in his conducting, particularly in his hand gestures, which tended to appear more sweeping than would be the perception with most conductors. He showed complete command of the orchestra, however, and of the scores for the works on the program.
The first of those was the “The Moldau” by Smetana. The single movement piece is very much an ode to the Bohemia that many Czech’s call home. It is a gorgeous composition, with a series of images created by the composer to suggest sights one might view on a river cruise on the Bohemian river of the work’s title. Mr. Villaume guided his musicians through the work with precise attention to the many shifting moods and tones in the score. It was a lovely rendition that showcased each of the sections of the orchestra at various points.
The balance of the program was devoted to two major works by Antonín Dvořák. The concerto was the composer’s wondrous work for the cello in B Minor. The soloist for the performance was Gautier Capuçon, a young (35) French cellist who has already established himself as a virtuoso of his instrument, and his rendition of the difficult passages in the concerto more than confirmed that his reputation is well justified. He played the piece without a score and dazzled on the several short cadenzas that the first and third movements contain.
Dvořák’s concerto is very much a collaborative work, however, with long stretches at the start and end for the full orchestra. In that respect, the cello is often secondary to the orchestra, only occasionally asserting its dominance. During those passages when the orchestra was dominant, Mr. Villaume brought out the symphonic elements in the piece with gusto. The combined effect made for a powerful and rewarding performance.
The other Dvořák work on the program was his glorious Symphony No. 8, which features an abundance of themes in the first movement that are passed from one section of the orchestra to another. It is a challenge for lesser ensembles, but it was marvelously rendered by Mr. Villaume’s musicians. And the finale, which can sound pedestrian if not interpreted properly, was nothing less than memorable, as Mr. Villaume had the entire complement of musicians playing an extra soft pianissimo before the closing coda erupted with increasing volume and tempo. It all came to a climactic close in the single fortissimo chord with which the symphony concludes.
The audience was quickly to its feet, and the ovation lasted through three returns to the stage by Mr. Villaume. An encore was clearly called for, but none was offered: the only regret in an otherwise magnificent evening of symphonic excellence.