Philharmonia Sessions: Hrůša conducts Dvořák Jakub Hrůša – conductor • Alisa Weilerstein – cello



We were delighted to return to the stunning Battersea Arts Centre to film the fourth instalment of our Philharmonia Sessions, an all-Dvořák programme full of warmth and joy, perfect for a chilly November evening. Thank you for joining us at home again, and don’t forget there’s a live chat with our players during the stream – we’d love to hear from you!

We’re so glad that Jakub Hrůša, who lives and breathes the music of his homeland, was able to travel to London for this performance, alongside virtuoso cellist Alisa Weilerstein. We hope you enjoy this concert as much as we enjoyed creating it for you, wherever you are listening in the world.

Please share your thoughts on the performance on social media, using the hashtag #PhilharmoniaSessions.

Header image: Alisa Weilerstein © Marco Borggreve

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Alisa Weilerstein & Jakub Hrůša © Luca Migliore

Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904)

Silent Woods for cello and orchestra, Op. 68 No. 5 (1883, arr. 1893)

Antonín Dvořák proved that it was perfectly viable to use tunes and rhythms from folk music to write complex notated music – the sort that combined such tunes in conversation and opposition, transforming them in the process.

In Dvořák’s case, those tunes mostly came from what is now the Czech Republic. The composer was born some 40 miles north of Prague, studied performing and composition in that city and then worked as a viola player. He would make his name with a series of exhilarating concertos, symphonies and operas fuelled by native songs and dances.

Dvořák’s success led to a professorship at the Prague Conservatoire and saw him headhunted to run a similar institution in New York. Before he crossed the Atlantic, the composer organised a farewell concert tour of his home country for the early months of 1892. He would appear as a both pianist and composer and be accompanied by longtime colleagues Ferdinand Lachner (on violin) and Hanuš Wihan (on cello). The three planned to play 39 cities across what were then the territories of Bohemia and Moravia.

Alisa Weilerstein © Luca Migliore

As he made preparations for the tour, Dvořák realised he lacked music for cello and piano for him and Wihan to play. The composer turned to his own set of six piano pieces entitled From the Bohemian Forest, plucking out the movement called ‘Klid’ and arranging it for cello and piano.

The title literally translates as ‘rest’, but the composer’s new publisher Fritz Simrock wisely concluded that a more evocative title would sell the piece and settled on the German word Waldesruhe, meaning ‘silent woods’.

As the title suggests, the piece is a dreamy romance – evocative of a forest at dusk in which the long-breathed melody sits perfectly on the cello. There is a livelier middle section, in the scrunchy key of C-sharp minor. In 1893, now an honorary New Yorker, Dvořák made a new arrangement of the piece that calls for full orchestral accompaniment, making particularly delicious use of winding woodwinds.

Antonín Dvořák proved that it was perfectly viable to use tunes and rhythms from folk music to write complex notated music...
Alisa Weilerstein & Jakub Hrůša © Luca Migliore

Rondo for cello and orchestra, Op. 94 (1891, arr. 1893)

Initially, Dvořák was sceptical when it came to the qualities of the cello as a solo instrument. He referred to its sound as “nasal” when playing high notes and “grumbling” when playing low ones.

Perhaps the composer’s time sitting next to cellos while playing the viola had coloured his judgment. Either way, he would eventually re-think that summation, and write a cello concerto for Wihan that has a special place in the hearts of cellists.

Silent Woods may have played a part in the cello concerto’s genesis. But so did another piece Dvořák rustled-up for the 1892 concert tour. This one was wholly original.

Alisa Weilerstein © Luca Migliore

Dvořák wrote the Rondo in G minor for cello and piano on Christmas Day 1891, putting the finishing touches to it on 26 December. He labelled the score ‘Rondo for Professor Wihan’ – the cellist had been appointed a professor at the Prague Conservatory a few years earlier.

The Rondo was first performed, as part of the tour, in the town of Kladno on 6 January 1892 and was orchestrated the following year, at the same time as Silent Woods.

... the solo cello is in control, leading the orchestra through various contrasting scenes...

Knowing that he would soon be leaving his home (though only for a few years, it would turn out), Dvořák was keen that the music would have a distinctly local flavour. The shape and spirit of Czech folk music make themselves felt from the poised, minor-key dance that opens the piece, right through to its similarly ominous ending.

In between, the solo cello is in control – leading the orchestra through various contrasting scenes, each speaking of rustic village life, and ranging from the loving to the respectful and the tempestuous.

The music of this adventure-in-miniature is playful, virtuosic (for the cello) and full of conversational exchanges. It is also unfailingly elegant and exceptionally controlled, largely cleansed of the mud of the countryside.

Jakub Hrůša © Luca Migliore

Czech Suite, Op. 39 (1879)

  1. Praeludium (Pastorale): Allegro moderato
  2. Polka: Allegretto grazioso – Trio: Poco più mosso
  3. Sousedská (Minuetto): Allegro giusto.
  4. Romance (Romanza): Andante con moto
  5. Finale (Furiant): Presto

Simrock, the savvy publisher who had suggested that the title Silent Woods may sell better than ‘Klid’, had been alerted to Dvořák’s talents by another composer, Johannes Brahms. Not long before, Brahms had written a piece for Simrock entitled Hungarian Dances. It sold like hot cakes.

Music like this – nationalism for an international audience – was in fashion. Many found the distinctive rhythms of folk music intoxicating, and asymmetrical folk-derived melodies refreshing, after all the perfection of Viennese classicism. Simrock correctly sensed that Dvořák’s music was heading in this direction in the 1870s, and wasted no time forging a relationship with the composer (or trying to).

“An artist has his country, in which he must have firm faith and an ardent heart...” Antonín Dvořák

First, Simrock published a set of Slavonic Dances for piano by Dvořák. They proved a wild success – so much so that he requested an orchestral version quickly afterwards. The two men disagreed when it came to Simrock’s ruthless sales techniques. He was sometimes economical with the truth and liked to pretend music was newer than it actually was, but the relationship proved mutually beneficial.

Besides, it wasn’t all about commerce. Simrock’s sense of the market perfectly matched Dvořák’s artistic project at the time. “An artist has his country, in which he must have firm faith and an ardent heart,” wrote the composer to the publisher. In 1879, Dvořák wrote a work that would affirm his faith in his country with charm and affection: the Czech Suite. After lingering a little to underline their worth, he finally offered the dances to Simrock for publication. The suite was first performed in Prague on 16 May 1879.

Philharmonia © Luca Migliore

The five individual movements are based on dance rhythms from Bohemia, Moravia and Central Europe, and were inspired by the region’s landscape and way of life. Dvořák didn’t use indigenous, known melodies; instead, he employed rhythms and key-changes that were characteristic to certain dances.

The opening ‘Prelude’ uses a universal tool for presenting a wide-angle view of an open landscape: a drone or ‘pedal note’ (a long-held note in the bass). Here, the low drone specifically references the Czech variation on Scottish bagpipes known as ‘dudy’.

Despite the static picture, the music remains mobile, coloured by the suggestion of birdsong in the background. The melody, first heard on strings before moving to the oboe, weaves around a confined space much like a Bohemian fiddle tune would.

The second movement is a ‘Polka’ – a dance of Czech origin (later adopted by Poland) with a distinctive da-da-daa rhythm. Dvořák’s polka is in two sections, each overlaying that rhythm with a distinctive melody.

Philharmonia © Luca Migliore

Next comes a ‘Sousedská’ – a calm, swaying dance for pairs with a pronounced accent on the second beat of the bar. Here, it is imagined as a hybrid with a Classical minuet. The clarinet leads the dance before strings respond.

In the ‘Romance’, a flute drapes a long melody over a throbbing string accompaniment, a melody soon threaded into a conversation with other woodwind instruments. What feels languorous is also pregnant with pride and even protest.

That feeling explodes into being in the last movement. It is shaped as a ‘Furiant’ – a lively dance rapidly alternating two distinctive gaits: two-in-a-bar and three-in-a-bar. The rollicking cross-rhythms are enough to have Dvořák reach for trumpets and percussion.

Notes by Andrew Mellor © Philharmonia Orchestra/Andrew Mellor

Dvořák, Director of the National Conservatory of Music, New York, 1892, credit Internet Archive Book Images

Dvořák: Home and Away

Listening to the end of his Czech Suite, it’s easy to assume that Dvořák was a composer happier in a village tavern than in a city concert hall. The common view of Dvořák as a bearded bumpkin born to a butcher and innkeeper reinforces the idea. But is it really accurate?

To some extent, yes. Despite his intellect and his creative abilities, Dvořák was a simple soul: straightforward to the point of naivety in conversation and with a pathological aversion to telling untruths. He loved the outdoors, was a keen hiker and gardener, and kept pigeons. Titles like Silent Woods, From the Bohemian Forest, and In Nature’s Realm give you a good idea of his attachment to nature. Dvořák liked a beer, a smoke and a plate of beef and dumplings.

The composer’s Czech nationalism, however, wasn’t overbearing. The context for feelings of patriotism among late 19th-century Czechs was centuries of steady ‘Germanisation’ during the Habsburg era, but Dvořák considered elements of the nationalist movement fanatical. In his music, he always strived to be cosmopolitan even when overtly describing his homeland – one reason his music proved so popular outside it.

Success was a long time coming for Dvořák, which may be one reason he remained so true to his roots. He was passed over for plenty of higher profile jobs during his time as a viola player in the Provincial Czech Theatre’s orchestra and other light music ensembles. When he finally found success in the late 1870s, he bought and refurbished a rural farmhouse in which he and his family would spend the summer months.

In America, Dvořák proved in some style that he listened to the roots and soil of a country rather more than he tried to impress its cognoscenti.

The big change for Dvořák came when he was offered the top job at the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York. He didn’t really want to go. Only the composer’s wife, noticing the stipulated salary ($400,000 in today’s money) persuaded him to respond, belatedly, to the invitation. The Dvořáks, a big family, needed the income.

In America, Dvořák proved in some style that he listened to the roots and soil of a country rather more than he tried to impress its cognoscenti. The two masterpieces he wrote there – a symphony and string quartet both later labelled ‘American’ – would see him using indigenous American music in precisely the same way he had used music from Bohemia and Moravia. Both the symphony and the quartet are fuelled by the spirit and character of American spirituals and slave songs – the stuff Dvořák predicted, correctly, would form the future of American music.

Feature by Andrew Mellor © Philharmonia Orchestra/Andrew Mellor

Jakub Hrůša © Luca Migliore

Jakub Hrůša

“… a triumph of balanced energy, gentle emotion, and clear sound … There is something beguiling and profoundly right about Hrůša’s way with the music … a privileged glimpse into the human heart.” Fanfare Magazine

Born in the Czech Republic, Jakub Hrůša is Chief Conductor of the Bamberg Symphony and Principal Guest Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic.

He is a frequent guest with many of the world’s greatest orchestras. Recent performing highlights include his role as Principal Guest Conductor of the Philharmonia, as well as debuts with the Vienna Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio Symphony, Orchestre de Paris and NHK Symphony, to all of which he was immediately re-invited. In addition to his titled positions, he also enjoys close relationships with the Berlin Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony.

As a conductor of opera, he has been a regular guest with Glyndebourne Festival, conducting Vanessa, The Cunning Little Vixen, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Carmen, The Turn of the Screw, Don Giovanni and La bohème, and serving as Music Director of Glyndebourne On Tour for three years. Elsewhere he has led productions for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (Carmen), Vienna State Opera and Zurich Opera (both The Makropulos Case), and Opéra National de Paris (Rusalka).

His relationships with leading vocal and instrumental soloists have included collaborations in recent seasons with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Leif Ove Andsnes, Emanuel Ax, Lisa Batiashvili, Joshua Bell, Jonathan Biss, Yefim Bronfman, Rudolf Buchbinder, Renaud Capuçon, Isabelle Faust, Martin Fröst, Julia Fischer, Vilde Frang, Véronique Gens, Hilary Hahn, Barbara Hannigan, Alina Ibragimova, Janine Jansen, Karita Mattila, Leonidas Kavakos, Sergey Khachatryan, Igor Levit, Viktoria Mullova, Anne Sofie Mutter, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Daniil Trifonov, Mitsuko Uchida, Yuja Wang and Alisa Weilerstein, among many others.

As a recording artist, releases have included Dvořák and Brahms Symphonies with the Bamberg Symphony, Suk’s Asrael Symphony with the Bavarian Radio Symphony, and Dvořák’s Requiem and Te Deum with the Czech Philharmonic. In 2020, two of his recordings – Dvořák and Martinů Piano Concertos with Ivo Kahánek and the Bamberg Symphony, and Vanessa from Glyndebourne – won BBC Music Magazine Awards.

Jakub Hrůša studied conducting at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, where his teachers included Jiří Bělohlávek. He is currently President of the International Martinů Circle and The Dvořák Society, and was the inaugural recipient of the Sir Charles Mackerras Prize. In 2020, he was awarded the Antonín Dvořák Prize by the Czech Republic’s Academy of Classical Music.

Alisa Weilerstein © Luca Migliore

Alisa Weilerstein

"The American cellist plays as if she were dreaming up the music on the spot, with a fluidity and passion that induces goose pimples.” The Financial Times

“A young cellist whose emotionally resonant performances of both traditional and contemporary music have earned her international recognition … Weilerstein is a consummate performer, combining technical precision with impassioned musicianship.” So stated the MacArthur Foundation when awarding Alisa Weilerstein a 2011 MacArthur “genius grant” Fellowship. In performances marked by intensity, sensitivity, and a wholehearted immersion in each of the works she interprets, the American cellist has long proven herself to be in possession of a distinctive musical voice.

As Artistic Partner with the Trondheim Soloists, Weilerstein has recorded the album Transfigured Night released on Pentatone, featuring Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and both Haydn cello concertos. Gramophone magazine proclaimed, “you’d go far to find performances of the Haydn concertos that match Alisa Weilerstein’s mix of stylistic sensitivity, verve and spontaneous delight in discovery.” Her recording of the Beethoven Triple Concerto, featuring Alan Gilbert, Stefan Jackiw, Inon Barnatan and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, was released by Pentatone in 2019.

Weilerstein’s growing and celebrated discography includes a recording of the Elgar and Elliott Carter cello concertos with Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin that was named ‘Recording of the Year 2013’ by BBC Music Magazine. Her compilation of unaccompanied 20th-century cello music entitled Solo was pronounced an “uncompromising and pertinent portrait of the cello repertoire of our time” (ResMusica). In 2016 she released a “powerful and even mesmerising” recording (San Francisco Chronicle) of Shostakovich’s cello concertos with Philharmonia guest conductor Pablo Heras-Casado and the Bavarian Radio Symphony.

"... a consummate performer, combining technical precision with impassioned musicianship.” MacArthur Foundation

Weilerstein has appeared with all the foremost orchestras of Europe and the United States. In 2009, she was one of four artists invited by Michelle Obama to participate in a high-profile classical music event at the White House. Committed to expanding the cello repertoire, Weilerstein is an ardent champion of new music. She performed the world premiere of Pascal Dusapin’s Outscape, giving it “the kind of debut most composers can only dream of achieving” (Chicago Tribune).

Born in 1982, Weilerstein discovered her love for the cello at just two and a half, when her grandmother assembled a makeshift set of instruments from cereal boxes to entertain her. After persuading her parents to buy her a real cello at the age of four, she developed her natural affinity for the instrument and gave her first public performance six months later. At 13, she played Tchaikovsky’s ‘Rococo’ Variations for her Cleveland Orchestra debut, and in 1997 she made her first Carnegie Hall appearance with the New York Youth Symphony. A graduate of the Young Artist Programme at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where she studied with Richard Weiss, the cellist also holds a degree in history from Columbia University.