Filharmonie Brno brings Czech fire and a belated Glass premiere to Carnegie

Thu Feb 09, 2023 at 1:56 pm
Soloist Angélique Kidjo, Philip Glass and Dennis Russell Davies acknowledge applause following the New York premiere of Glass’s Symphony No. 12 by Filharmonie Brno Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Pete Checchia

The orchestra Filharmonie Brno, which performed in Carnegie Hall Wednesday night, has at least two things going for it: it represents Brno, the home town of the original and long underappreciated Czech composer, Leoš Janáček; and its chief conductor and artistic director Dennis Russell Davies is, among many other things, the conductor who premiered and recorded much of the orchestral music of Philip Glass.

So of course those two composers topped the bill Wednesday. And although Glass lives in New York, as do legions of his fans, it often seems to require visitors from abroad to get his symphonies heard here.

That series of works is now up to Symphony No. 14, but Wednesday’s concert marked the New York premiere of No. 12, composed in 2019. Titled “Lodger” after the 1979 David Bowie album, No. 12 completed a trilogy of symphonies inspired by the iconic rocker’s Berlin albums, begun decades ago with No. 1 in 1992 (“Low”) and No. 4 in 1996 (“Heroes”).

Not surprisingly considering the time gap, No. 12 departs in style and method from the earlier two. But before Wednesday’s audience could experience that difference, there was some Czech business to take care of.

Davies launched the program in a pre-Glassian, full-orchestra roar of urgent figurations and shifting rhythms, which turned out to be Bohuslav Martinů’s 1945 scherzo Thunderbolt P-47. The composer named the piece for the American fighter planes that regularly interrupted his summer idyll on Cape Cod, where he was waiting out World War II, as “my private tribute to this type of plane which was of such assistance in ending this terrible war.”  The central trio offered some dancing relief and a pretty cello tune before the planes surged over the horizon again.

War was the subject, not just the background, of Janáček’s 1918 “rhapsody for orchestra” Taras Bulba, a kind of triple “Eroica” symphony commemorating the deaths of not just one hero, but three. Inspired by Gogol’s story about the eponymous Cossack leader, his two sons, and their different fates in battle, Janáček painted an orchestral triptych: son Andrei, beguiled by love for a Polish girl (English horn on a cushion of strings), goes over to the enemy and is killed in battle by his own father (shrieking orchestral climax); son Ostap, captured and executed in a Warsaw public square (a Berliozian march to the scaffold) is consoled by a vision of his approving father (horn calls, deep brass); and the old leader himself, also facing execution by the enemy, serenely triumphant at the end and stepping gloriously into history in an orchestral blaze with pealing bells.

The American conductor and his Czech players—incisive woodwinds, imposing brass, and versatile strings—brought all of this imagery vividly to life. At least one violinist could be seen joining the applause for her boss at the end.

A different kind of war—a cold one—lurked behind the West Berlin electronic-music scene when Bowie and his collaborator Brian Eno wrote and recorded those famous albums in the 1970s. That context influenced Glass’s Symphony No. 12 more than his two previous Bowie symphonies, because the composer was now working with Bowie’s words only, creating new settings of the rocker’s haunting poetry.

To deliver those words, Glass chose an African music star, Angélique Kidjo from Benin, who performed on Wednesday, and whose vocal style, while intensely expressive, is about as far from Western conservatory singing as you can get. No attempt to bridge the stylistic gap was made, either by putting nostalgic reverb around Kidjo’s amplified voice or by giving the symphony orchestra any kind of African accent. One can only conclude that the alienation was the point, a sonic correlative to Bowie’s dark musings on people and society in a cold-war freeze.

Another top-billed player (one hesitates to say soloist) was organist Christian Schmitt, who performed at a console turned toward the audience at stage right. The capable Schmitt played alone for a few seconds of the piece, asserted his part in contrapuntal sections, and reinforced Glass’s characteristic deep bass sound, but overall one suspected that his electronic instrument was not playing the dominant role in the performance the composer may have intended for it.

Glassian oceanic surges and major-minor harmonic colors were the obvious choices for the instrumental movement titled “Fantastic Voyage,” impressively executed by the Brno players. Surging and forward drive continued in “Move On,” while Kidjo’s enunciation of the text was doubled by trombones.

The fast arpeggios of orchestra and organ in “African Night Flight” had a touch of soft swing to them. Kidjo also softened her delivery at times, becoming almost another instrument in the orchestra.

The satirical “Boys Keep Swinging” opened with a syncopated organ solo, joined by percussion, finally opening into a dissonant cabaret number on a samba beat, with singer Kidjo laying it on the line about male entitlement and misbehavior. In contrast, “Yassassin”—Turkish, we’re told, for “long life”–was the soft lament of “just a working man,” ushered in by moaning strings and keening woodwinds.

Interestingly for Glass, his setting of the text called “Repetition” was not repetitive at all, but ever-changing deep figurations over a pounding syncopated beat. What was repeated was a man’s abuse of a woman in the poem, frankly described by the singer before she shifted to vocalizing on “ah” over a surging orchestra.

The voyage of escape resumed in “Red Sails,” with a pianissimo orchestral throb, floating woodwind lines, and rising and falling waves of scales. The singer intoned Bowie’s lines (“Red sails take me, make me sail along”) in taut, short phrases, before Davies brought the piece to a close in classic Glass fashion, a furious rush of arpeggios that cut off in mid-crescendo.

As the full house applauded and cheered, an exuberant Kidjo mounted the podium, beckoning and arm-locking organist Schmitt and conductor Davies for bows, as the composer, who turned 86 on January 31, eventually joined the trio and orchestra onstage..

3 Responses to “Filharmonie Brno brings Czech fire and a belated Glass premiere to Carnegie”

  1. Posted Feb 09, 2023 at 2:46 pm by Peter Wejchert

    Just awful. If I’d had an aisle seat I would have spared myself the excruciating experience and fled. The singer was often off pitch and if the intent was ‘alienation’ her foghorn emotionless delivery did the trick. She may be great in other contexts and genres, but she was embarrassingly miscast singing here.

    At times the incongruity and sheer awfulness of her delivery of Bowie’s lyrics was comical. As for the accompanying orchestral score itself, nothing new here from Glass or even, if all too familiar, impressive. A fairly complete misfire.

  2. Posted Feb 10, 2023 at 12:50 pm by Zac Carr

    What a wonderful performance. Kidjo, Schmitt, and the entire Brno Philharmonic were exceptional in every way.

    I was familiar with the piece so it was such a pleasure to hear it performed live and so well. It was also very nice to see Glass himself in the audience and to thank everyone on stage after.

    It will continue to be a special memory for me.

  3. Posted Feb 11, 2023 at 10:40 am by Dominick Agostino

    The audience and I enjoyed Dennis Russel Davies with orchestra Filharmonie Brno with what seemed like a 5 minute applause up to the intermission. Unfortunately I walked in with high expectations. I have followed both Bowie and Glass (my heroes) for about 40 years. However, this had all the makings of what could have been an amazing experience.

    It was a bit confusing knowing the Lodger album inside out and weaving a cliché of Glassian work didn’t work for me. I am also a big supporter of Angélique Kidjo and it sounded nothing like herself. I thought she was sick and held back rather than an artistic license choice. Perhaps to a listener that didn’t have any history of either of these masters, it would have made for a wonderful evening.

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