The New Millennium Chamber Orchestra, under its music director, James Richard Frieman, gave a particularly enticing program last weekend. It was particularly long, too, lasting almost 2 1/2 hours on Sunday, Nov. 3, in the First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto.
The topic was music from Bohemia, the western part of what is now the Czech Republic. It’s long been one of the most productive musical regions of Europe. The music of characteristically Czech composers has a bouncy irregular emphasis supposedly based on the stress patterns of the Czech language.
Frieman managed to fit five composers into this program. Three of them represented different generations of the central Czech nationalist tradition. The first was Bedrich Smetana, founder of the Bohemian national style of music. Three dances from his opera “The Bartered Bride” were gratifyingly heavy and full in sound. The Polka and Furiant achieved a sure sense of rhythm from this volunteer orchestra. The more “moto perpetuo” style of the “Dance of the Comedians” was less successful at flowing.
Antonín Dvorák is the most popular of all Czech composers. There wasn’t time to fit in any of his expansive full-length works, so this concert gave us single movements from two works. The Adagio slow movement from his Symphony No. 6 in D Major, which Frieman introduced as the first work he had ever conducted, achieved beauty within the technical limitations of the orchestra.
Newly-appointed assistant conductor Tabitha Tetreault, otherwise a violist in the orchestra, took the podium to lead an energetic and quite delightful rendition of the polka finale to Dvorak’s Serenade for Winds in D Minor. Despite the title, the score includes parts for a cello and a double bass. Here, the orchestra’s full sections of those instruments participated. That didn’t overbalance the sound, which was bold and crisp from the winds.
The third composer in this series was the lesser-known Vitezslava Kaprálová, a brilliantly talented woman who tragically died of disease at the age of 25 in 1940. Her “Suita Rustica” puts a dissonant 20th-century coating on its evocation of Czech folk music. Like much music of its time, it shows that the composer had been listening to music by Stravinsky. But it maintains a Czech feel underneath everything. Notably, it includes a passage that’s a direct homage to Smetana. This work was quite a challenge to play, but came off well.
Of the two other composers on the program, Gustav Mahler was of Bohemian origin, but he left for schooling in Vienna at the age of 15 and did not practice the Czech nationalist style. The Adagietto for strings and harp from his Symphony No. 5 is the piece usually selected by orchestras seeking something brief by Mahler to play. It’s a gentle love letter to the composer’s intended (literally: he sent her the score). Its lush sweetness was conveyed well by the intrepid players.
The largest work on the program was by W.A. Mozart, who wasn’t Czech at all. But his music was popular in Bohemia in his own day. On a visit to Prague, the capital, in 1787, he premiered to local delight a new symphony which has ever since been known as the “Prague” Symphony. The orchestra played the full three-movement work. Mozart is a surprisingly difficult composer to play well: it was a challenge for this orchestra to make this work as limpid as the composer intended. However, it was entirely coherent. The cadences for strings, a feature Mozart especially emphasizes, were particularly clear.
New Millennium Chamber Orchestra’s next concert will be a celebration of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year, featuring his “Eroica” Symphony. The program will be performed in San Mateo on Saturday, Feb. 22, and in Palo Alto on Sunday, Feb. 23.