Northbrook Symphony gives neglected Czech symphony its belated American debut

Tue Apr 14, 2015 at 3:20 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Lawrence Rapchak conducted the Northbrook Symphony Orchestra Sunday afternoon.
Lawrence Rapchak conducted the Northbrook Symphony Orchestra Sunday afternoon.

“Bohemian Revelry and the Path to Resurrection” is not a program title one encounters everyday.

Leave it to the enterprising Lawrence Rapchak, music director of the Northbrook Symphony Orchestra. Sunday afternoon’s concert at the Sheely Performing Arts Center not only presented an uncommonly thoughtful lineup of Bohemian-themed works spotlighting the organ. It also offered the belated North American premiere of the Symphony No. 4 “Easter Eve’ by Josef Bohuslav Foerster.

Sunday’s program is the third and final installment of Rapchak’s series “In Mahler’s Shadow,” examining neglected symphonies by Mahler’s friends and colleagues. Even more than Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony (No. 2), Foerster’s Symphony No. 4 has a clear religious inspiration for the Roman Catholic composer.

The symphony is written on an epic scale, with four movements clocking in at 50 minutes. The first is titled “The Road to Calvary,” painted with a dirge-like tragic opening with timpani strokes. The music is dark and broodingly dramatic like Mahler if less neurotic—and less ingenious. Some of the lyrical contrasting episodes display the open-air pastoral feel of Foerster’s compatriot Dvorak. Yet while the long first movement has lovely moments, the writing is fitfully awkward with Foerster failing to tie the varied episodes together in convincing fashion.

The second movement is a piquant scherzo with chirping winds and a lilting theme for horns in the first trio section. The ensuing Andante plumbs a vein of plush if somewhat generic lyricism, with Rapchak skillfully judging the ebb and flow of the long lines.

The final movement is the most ambitious, segueing from a darkly funereal opening into a jagged and stormy section. The music becomes intensely contrapuntal and rises to an imposing climax, which is quelled by the solo organ’s playing of an Easter hymn. The orchestra’s response grows more radiant and luxuriant, building to a lush and grandly affirmative coda.

I’m not sure one can say Foerster’s “Easter Eve” symphony is a neglected masterpiece but it’s an attractive and richly melodic work that surely deserves more performances than its current total neglect. Kudos to Rapchak for giving Foerster’s symphony a belated North American debut on its 110th anniversary.

The Northbrook Symphony rose to this U.S. premiere with its finest performance of the afternoon, playing with dedication and commitment, some ensemble lapses and errant horn playing apart.

Rapchak led off the afternoon with both the U.S. and Czech national anthems. In the latter, Miloslav Gajdos, a Czech Republic native and member of the orchestra’s double-bass section, contributed an idiomatic if rather woolly solo vocal rendition.

The first half of the program proper cleverly amplified the thematic mix of Bohemian sacred and profane (or at least, earthily populist). Rapchak led a spirited reading of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance in C minor, Op. 46, no. 7, aptly jaunty and fiery by turns.

Though Mozart was Austrian, of course, not Czech, Prague gave the composer some of his greatest successes in his short lifetime, not least the world premiere of Don Giovanni.

It was clever programming to group four of Mozart’s rarely heard church sonatas together to form a short symphony of sorts for orchestra and organ. (The movements in order played were No. 7, K.224, No. 1 K.67, No. 9, K.244 and No. 12, K.278.) As Rapchak stated, this is prime Mozart, and the lively No. 12 could even pass for an ebullient overture to a lost Mozart opera.

While the music is delightful, the presentation works less well as a concerto. The organ line is rather passive and rarely emerges from the fabric of the chamber ensemble, lacking enough prominence and soloistic heft to assume a concertante role.

Perhaps organist Patricia Lee sensed this disequilibrium, surprising Rapchak by taking her place on stage with the orchestra rather than making a separate entrance as soloist. Still Lee rendered the organ role with tasteful aplomb and Rapchak led the chamber forces in spirited and idiomatic playing, some wayward string ensemble apart.

Jaromir Weinberger’s 1926 opera Švanda Dudák (“Schwanda the Bagpiper”), enjoyed extraordinary international popularity in the late 1920s and 1930s, including a well-received production at the Metropolitan Opera. Schwanda is that rarest of things, a 20th-century comic opera, and chock full of magnificent music long overdue for rediscovery.

Rapchak and the orchestra performed the brilliant “Polka and Fugue” symphonic except, which works the lovably ditzy polka theme into an overwhelming symphonic tour de force, complete with floor-shaking organ. If not quite approaching the polished, riotous panache of Fritz Reiner’s celebrated Chicago Symphony Orchestra recording, Rapchak and his musicians delivered a lively and energetic performance.

The Northbrook Symphony closes its season May 3 with music of Wagner, Strauss, Debussy and D’Indy.

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