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Prague's Velvet Touch Is Felt

Historic West Coast arrival of Czech Philharmonic at Santa Ana High School auditorium reveals an ambitious program and raw virtuosity mixed with an individual approach.


Like just about everything else in Prague, the Czech Philharmonic is changing. This orchestra always has prided itself on a highly distinctive Czech sound--tart and citric compared with the creamy uniformity of voices favored by nearby Vienna. And although many of the great international conductors have been its guests throughout its 104-year history, it has remained fiercely loyal to native musicians. Yet two years ago, the orchestra did the unimaginable and hired Vladimir Ashkenazy, a Russian, as its music director.

As part of an international tour celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the Czech Philharmonic came to the West Coast for the first time this week. The closest it got to Los Angeles was the Santa Ana High School auditorium Thursday night (the program was presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County and its usual venue, Segerstrom Hall, wasn't available). Ashkenazy's program did not include Czech music but was ambitious, with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20, which he conducted from the keyboard, and Mahler's wild Seventh Symphony.

Still, under Ashkenazy, this highly individual orchestra has hardly lost its traditional Czech essence. Only a handful of names on the musician roster are not obviously Czech, and the orchestra is only now overturning its traditional old-world sexism (so far it has hired just five women). It certainly retains its traditional macho virtuosity that favors raw, immediate expression over the niceties of a smoothly blended sound or the brilliant gloss of the typical high-powered modern ensemble. The strings are sharp and edgy; the winds, as a section, are recessed and moody almost to the point of gloom; the brass sound tarnished but can also be movingly eloquent.

The bone-dry high school acoustics did not flatter such an orchestra, accustomed to more fluid and elegant settings. But in other ways the auditorium suited both the music and players. In my mind the Czech Philharmonic will always be associated with its classic LP recordings of thrilling performances by such legendary former music directors as Vaclav Talich and Karel Ancerl, and with the crackling of the wretched vinyl on which they were pressed. The sound always seemed on verge of breaking up. And that is about what it was like at Santa Ana High.

Certainly, Mahler's Seventh was too big for the auditorium. But there was also something historically appropriate about that as well. The Czech Philharmonic lays special claim to this symphony; it gave the premiere of it in 1908 in Prague under Mahler. One of Mahler's friends remembered the utter chaos of the occasion in a venue that also served as a banquet hall. Mahler--throwing himself around on the podium in wild fits of delirium--had to rehearse while waiters set tables all around him.

Ashkenazy--a warm, affable, refined musician--is no Mahler. His interpretation was contained, uncontroversial. But one also had the sense that Ashkenazy held these musicians by a taut, frail rope. The symphony is the most nocturnal and surreal that Mahler wrote, turning spooky dark corners around which are haunting ghosts as well as inviting taverns and sweet romance. Pierre Boulez sees proto-Modernism in all this; Michael Tilson Thomas, in a colorfully turbulent and exquisitely detailed new recording, finds evidence of Mahler's ethnic roots. The Czech Philharmonic, untidy but rivetingly individual, was harder, more world-weary.

The Czech Philharmonic cannot lay any specific claim to Mozart's D-Minor Piano Concerto other than the fact that Mozart loved working in Prague and Prague loved Mozart. And certainly this darkest, stormiest of Mozart's piano concertos suits the orchestra. Ashkenazy, however, attempted to tame it perhaps too much. Seeking a chamber-music effect (with the winds so recessed here as to be barely audible), he played the solo part with lyrical efficiency and asked for cooperation from these unruly players rather than the probing drama closer to their hearts. Even so, the acerbic, independent-minded strings proved that they will never be fully domesticated. And bless them for it.

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