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  • Paul Schrage

Czech Philharmonic, Seymon Beychov, and Thomas Questaff

On Feb. 18 I had the great privilege to see 2 artists who I greatly admire, Seymon Beychov and Thomas Questaff. The program consisted of The Mystery of Time, Op. 31 by Miloslav Kabeláč, The Lay of Love and Death of Christoph Cornet Rilke by Viktor Ullmann, and Symphony no. 1 of Johannes Brahms. This is exactly my kind of program. There is a seriousness of expression in this program, and it needs to be intensely played. Each of these works combines emotional and intellectual complexity to create a masterpiece. What follows are some thoughts on the concert. Not a review, per say, just reflections.


First, it was a joy to see Beychov conduct. I had watched him on video, as well as watched interviews, and I knew he’s an incredible musician and thinker. But to see him live was truly special. One of the things I especially took notice of was his masterful shaping of all kinds, especially in the Brahms (which I knew better than the other works). Phrases were shaped beautifully, with an adherence to the score that also came across as natural. Dynamics were shaped with a sense of relationship to the other sections. Tempos naturally ebbed and flowed, giving space for the music to breathe without becoming stogy (not an easy thing to do in a Brahms symphony). Finally, the overall form was shaped so beautifully that when the final Presto arrived, I felt like I had been on a singular journey for the past 45 minutes.


One aspect of Beychov’s conducting I found peculiar was his habit to sway back and forth. His feet and hips were very active. This often can be distracting to orchestras, and conductors frequently work on quieting down their legs and hips. I wonder if orchestra members notice, or if they don’t notice but it affects them subconsciously.


Hearing Thomas Questaff perform the recitation on the Ullmann was something I had looked forward to for a long time. He truly is a master of the spoken word, and in combination with his formidable musicianship makes a performance such as this very special. In addition, the audience showed such great love and appreciation. His curtain calls felt different than those for a virtuoso who just played a Rachmaninoff or Paganini concerto. Rather than clapping for the performance, it felt like we all were clapping for him, personally, and thanking him for being who he is. If you ever have the opportunity to see him I highly recommend it.


And finally, the orchestra. The orchestra sounded great, as you would expect from the Czech Republic’s premier orchestra. They played with great intensity, and rose to the challenge of this demanding program. They played at the Rudolfinum, their home in Prague. I love this hall, for the reason I love many halls in Europe. It’s a smaller hall, and the music has more immediacy and contact for the audience. It seats around 1000, as compared to 2700 at Davies Symphony hall in San Francisco or 2200 at Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. As the classical music industry is continuing to work to generate new audiences, I think orchestras would benefit from taking a look at the size of the hall in which they perform. Allowing the audience a much more up close and personal experience will surely inspire more newcomers to continue exploring this music and return to the concert hall.


Although I loved this concert, not everything went perfectly. There were times that Beychov had to work especially hard to move the tempo after a spot of rubato. The orchestra didn’t always want to go with him. In addition, in certain sections he had to work at keeping the orchestra very soft, especially the strings. These are probably my most common criticisms of some of the very best orchestras in the world, and are not surprising with this difficult music. It reminded me that conducting orchestras is more like driving an aircraft carrier than a sports car. Try as you may, it’s very difficult to get 70+ musicians to respond all in the same way, all at the same time.


Lastly, I have to give props to the audience. They were attentive and quiet, with almost no coughing, shifting in their seats, or unwrapping candy. They all stayed through the 6 or 7 curtain calls that Beychov received after the Brahms, without anybody heading for the doors as soon as the last note was finished ringing. They seemed to truly appreciate the music, which I appreciate very much.

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