Hail and farewell

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  November 27, 2007

For the last few weeks, at every Jordan Hall concert I’ve attended, someone has come up to me to complain about the hideous NEW ENGLAND CONSERVATORY sign that’s been painted in tabloid gold lettering just under the organ pipes. “Tasteless,” “vulgar,” “tacky,” and “cheesy” are among the less offensive adjectives I’ve heard. “Can’t you get them to take it down?” someone asked. As if critics had power.

James Levine loves Smetana. His program note practically bubbled over with enthusiasm for last week’s program of the Bartered Bride Overture and the complete Má vlast (“My Country”), the six interconnected patriotic “symphonic poems” about Czech landscape, legend, and history that include Smetana’s most famous work, Vltava (depicting the river better known here by its German name, the Moldau — a piece that uses the same gorgeous tune that appears in “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem). The Overture was brilliantly zippy; the tone poems had strength and grace and great forward momentum. We got sparkling flute (Elizabeth Rowe), grand bardic harp (Ann Hobson Pilot), and sweeping strings.

But this Czech music had a distinctly American accent. I missed the magical lilt of quintessentially Czech inflections. The only other live performance I remember was with the Czech conductor Jirí Belohlávek, in 1989, leading a Czech orchestra in Worcester. (I didn’t hear him with the BSO at Tanglewood in 1988 — the last time the BSO did the entire Má vlast.) Maybe only a native speaker can convey the speech rhythms inherent in this music — it’s unmistakably present on the marvelous old recordings of Smetana and Dvorák by Václav Talich and the Czech Philharmonic. And like all music, this music sounds better when it’s speaking to you than when it’s merely well played.

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