Music is the universal language. We love that feel-good cliché — it’s a small world, after all — except when it’s not true.
For Thursday’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert, a Czech conductor programmed music from his homeland, including a beloved symphony, a masterpiece concerto and a long-belated local premiere — all music that speaks sharply in the Czech musical tongue. You can play all the notes correctly, yet if you’re not fluent in that “language” — whether it’s nationalist traditions from central Europe, or bebop jazz, or Broadway show tunes — you won’t convey how the music goes.
But the Czech specialist conductor who put the program together, Petr Popelka, fell ill and canceled.
Enter Paolo Bortolameolli. He’s a Chilean-Italian conductor who leads smaller (or youth) groups in Latin America and has already made career-important debuts, from Houston and Detroit to Lisbon and Berlin. Notably, he’s an assistant conductor at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a high-powered program for maestros-in-training, many of whom have gone on to win jobs at top international ensembles.
Bortolameolli is poised for a meteoric ascent, but Atlanta had to wait a while to learn why, since the all-Czech program wasn’t changed, despite the podium substitution.
They opened with Vítězslava Kaprálová’s Military Sinfonietta, from 1937, composed during a brief episode of self-rule for the First Czechoslovak Republic, with a blossoming of Czech folk life and nationalist ambitions — a culture shattered and imprisoned when the Nazis pushed into the republic’s Sudetenland region a year later.
Kaprálová had been studying in Paris when the war began. Thinking about how music can express “questions of national existence,” she described her 18-minute Military Sinfonietta as a work that “does not represent a battle cry, but it depicts the psychological need to defend that which is most sacred to the nation.” In classical music, the “universal language” was often shorthand for Austro-German hegemony; Kaprálová and her countrymen hoped to keep alive what was unique and precious in their corner of the world.
All this cultural history ought to factor in the interpretation of the music. But conductor Bortolameolli, in his Symphony Hall debut, had at first a rough time navigating the room’s deceptively uneven acoustics. The piece opens with a snare drum and a blaring brass fanfare. Like many ASO debutants, the conductor allowed the brass to roam and roar at high volume, eventually drowning out the rest of the stage. The orchestral balances never recovered. Instead of folksy, Bohemian rhythms and a fluid, Czech-style lyricism, it came off as four-square with blocky transitions. The whole thing was really loud, burying most of the details.
In Paris, Kaprálová studied with the great Czech master Bohuslav Martinů, and Martinů’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, from 1943, came next on what should have been, on paper and in the ear, a tightly constructed program. The concerto has a neo-classical elegance, structured in parts like a Baroque concerto grosso in form, but with industrial-age power and propulsion.
Powered by pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton, twin sisters facing each other as the two nine-foot Steinways were nestled together, the concerto motors along with terrific energy and verve. Martinů pushes the pianos to their limits, with the two instruments intertwined in a delicious web of counterpoint, full of pent-up excitement and an almost Impressionistic color palette.
Although conductor and orchestra dispatched the music two-dimensionally and at face value, the Naughtons played with an exuberant cool, making eye contact as their phrases ricocheted off each other. Orchestra and soloists were together but without much rapport — matters that should be improved upon for Saturday’s repeat performance.
The Naughton twins, in complementing metallic bronze and gray dresses, returned for an encore. Now seated side-by-side at one piano, they leapt into the most famous of Antonín Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances (C Major, Op. 46), which helped bridge all of the evening’s music. The pianists would bob a head or sway a shoulder or swivel a hip on the piano bench, offering music that was earthy, joyous and very physical — all the facets missing from the orchestral parts in the concerto. They highlighted those distinctive Czech rhythms, at once playful and a bit forlorn. In just a couple of minutes, they taught us how it goes.
In the evening’s two opening works, which Bortolameolli had never conducted in concert before, his nose was often buried in the score — understandable for a young conductor with an unfamiliar program and as an 11th-hour substitute.
But after intermission, for Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8, from 1889, the conductor showed the depth and radiance he’s capable of. From the opening, the orchestra exploded with intensity. Although the playing was still often too loud, it was unified and crisp, the sections solid. He found a warmth in this often somber symphony — perhaps more Brahmsian than folksy Czech, but it worked handsomely. For long stretches in the first movement, he had the ASO playing with fire and urgency but also a certain autumnal nostalgia. In sum, he highlighted the many layers of the composer’s brilliantly crafted simplicity.
In the slow second movement, Bortolameolli proved himself a storyteller, with a sure sense of pacing and drama. His ability to ratchet up the tension, then release it into the ether, was an exquisite joy. With panache, he somehow pulled together the string sound, so it was richer and more varied than we’re used to hearing except by all but the best conductors.
It was a pleasure to hear Bortolameolli and the orchestra learning from each other as the symphony progressed. Their sound actually seemed to be more quiet or, rather, the balances became more refined and complementary, so that by the long, gradual, reluctant departure, as we approached the music’s end, it had all come together: the mood and spirit of the music, the musicians on stage, the fabulously talented conductor on the podium. I hope they invite Bortolameolli back again soon — this time in repertoire of his choosing.
The program repeats Saturday at 8 p.m.
Pierre Ruhe was the founding executive director and editor of ArtsATL. He’s been a critic and cultural reporter for the Washington Post, London’s Financial Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and was director of artistic planning for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. He is publications director of Early Music America.