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MUSIC REVIEW

A mystifying aggregation

Czech Philharmonic, under a little-known conductor, offers some unearthly sounds.

February 27, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

When the Philharmonic Society brought the Czech Philharmonic to Orange County eight years ago, the orchestra played Mahler. Monday night, the Czechs returned to Orange County. Again they played Mahler. But a lot has changed in eight years, both in Costa Mesa and in Prague.

On our side of the equation, Costa Mesa now has an inviting concert hall, named after Renee and Henry Segerstrom. Last time around, the Orange County Performing Artscenter, as it now calls itself, had no such venue. The older Segerstrom Hall not being available, the visiting musicians were shipped out to the acoustic desert of the institutional Santa Ana High School auditorium.

As for the Czechs, they were led then by Vladimir Ashkenazy, a much-liked Russian pianist and conductor and a non-feather-rustling interpreter. The players were a feisty bunch -- sloppy, soulful and interesting. Ashkenazy, though, was prodding them in the direction of a more uniform international sound even in Mahler's weird Seventh Symphony.

Since then, the orchestra has made a great effort to return to its national roots. Under two Czech music directors, Jiri Belohlavek and Zdenek Macal, it has restored its burnished textures while also improving technically. The musicians, reputed to be temperamental, are said to have been growing up. Moreover, it's finally begun hiring women in meaningful numbers.

Baton turmoil

But one day last September, Macal -- the well-regarded 71-year-old former music director of the Milwaukee and New Jersey symphonies, who returned to his homeland in 2003 as a cultural hero -- finished a rehearsal and, seemingly out of the blue, told the orchestra that he was quitting. The official story is that he is a touchy guy who became angry over a review in a Prague newspaper that was mildly critical of his conservative programming. The widespread unofficial suspicion is that there had to be more to it than that. Dysfunction, on some level, clearly continues to disturb this Czech family.

Monday's ambitious program of Martinu's First Symphony and Mahler's Fifth was the one Macal had chosen for the tour. The conductor was Leos Svarovsky. Outside the Czech Republic and Slovakia, he appears to have done most of his conducting with second-level European and Asian orchestras. His biography notes only one U.S. guest appearance -- with the Green Bay (Wis.) Symphony.

Clearly, the Czechs have decided that the tour is not about the conductor, it is about the orchestra. Like Ashkenazy, Svarovsky ruffles no feathers. He goes in for very large gestures, waving his arms in wide arcs, which discourages quiet dynamics or rhythmic subtlety. He favors slow tempos, except when he rushes things. He can be vague about the way he begins a phrase. He doesn't always negotiate the middle of the phrase with a sure hand. But he likes to end phrases, whenever he can get away with it, with a surprisingly sharp accent.

His main virtue seems to be that he senses exactly what this orchestra can do and accommodates. And what the orchestra can do, these days, is reach into the dark recesses of the brass, the low strings and the low winds and carry you into spooky places you may or may not want to go.

Martinu's First Symphony, written in 1942 for the Boston Symphony, has the sound of a watery wonderland, and Svarovsky let it flow. Like a school of mermaids, Martinu's bewitching melodies pop their heads above water and submerge unpredictably. More rhythmic point in the playing would have been nice, but the symphony, inexplicably neglected outside the Czech world, was winning anyway.

A haunted Mahler's Fifth

Mahler's Fifth has been a regular this season. At Walt Disney Concert Hall, Gustavo Dudamel led the massive score with a massive Venezuelan youth orchestra and with the optimistic conviction that astonishing music-making can change the world. Also at Disney, Mariss Jansons led the ultra-refined Royal Concertgebouw from Amsterdam in a performance meant to induce a state of awe.

For 72 minutes, the Czech Philharmonic took us through something more Kafkaesque, if that doesn't sound too much like a cliche. The brass was magnificent, especially the solo trumpet and horn. The winds were scary-dark. They so dominated the sound, with cellos and basses ominously coming to their aid, that I often felt a familiar structure had been turned inside out.

If Martinu's music was the mysterious green sea, Mahler became a haunted old castle, beautiful and stately and historic, but with squeaky doors, plumbing you don't want to think about, bodies buried behind the walls.

Svarovsky lumbered a lot. He took phrases one at a time. The funereal first movement set the tone. Triumphant bits in the second, third and fifth movements were just that, bits that came out of nowhere and convinced, I suspect, no one. Mahler may have meant his famous Adagietto to be a love song. If so, here the love was bitter, moody, wayward -- not destined to last. The happier last movement nearly fell apart at the end.

But the instrumental shading throughout was spectacular -- the continual shifting of shadows, the flickering of light and dark, the mystery of it all. This is a mysterious orchestra in more ways than one.

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mark.swed@latimes.com

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