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Václav Luks Draws Electric Charge

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Václav Luks levitates. (Hilary Scott photo)

High voltage sparked from the H+ H Period Orchestra in response to the energetic charges built up by a debuting conductor of distinctive style. No earthbound figure he, rather, a levitating Leyden jar with a powerful accumulated potential. His angular podium manner suggesting Curt Bois’s immortal foxtrot conducting in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Oyster Princess (forgive me, HERE is the scene) immediately drew our attention to his powerful advocacy for a well-focused program that connected the Paris of “Chevalier de Saint-Georges” Joseph Bologne (1745 – 1799), with Jan Václav Voříšek  (1791–1825) and Beethoven (1770 -1827) in Vienna.

Bologne, the issue of a plantation owner and his wife’s slave, led a most colorful, though ultimately tragic life. Certainly not the only composer to fence (Handel famously fought a duel), Bologne must have been the only fencing master in the profession. He slept under the same roof as Mozart and was put forward as director of the Paris opera. Somehow, during periods of war and revolution he found time to play his violin (supposedly with Marie Antoinette) and compose. Leading the Overture to Bologne’s 1780 opera L’amant anonyme (The Anonymous Lover), Luks assumed what one could imagine to be a fencer’s stance—all knees and elbows, with slicing and jabbing passes from a sharp baton. Luks’s beat, perhaps the clearest and most decisive I’ve seen, sometimes resembled plucking a string. But he was no mere timekeeper. He energetically (there’s an understatement) drew forth arc and connection as well as instantaneous contrasts of dynamics and tempi while not shying from extreme pianissimos and ravishing pathos. That all of this could come across in a short overture paid tribute not only to Luks, but also to Bologne, who filled his allotted ten minutes with multiple themes, morphing moods, and distinctive colorations. It made for a great curtain raiser. A YouTube extract from the full opera [HERE] surely sounds like Mozart.

On these pages [HERE] Mark DeVoto opined that Voříšek’s only symphony

…stands on a par with Schubert’s early-middle symphonies, still revealing the influence of Beethoven’s (especially the Second, in the same key), and almost on the cusp of the early Romanticism. It shows no striking originality, but rather a bright melodism, imagination, and solid craftsmanship. The orchestra is standard-full for the 1820s: paired woodwinds, horns, trumpets, timpani and strings.

A comparison with early Beethoven’s symphonies suggests itself, especially the Second, which dates from 20 years earlier. Like Beethoven’s, Voříšek’s tends to cling to sonata form and strains to burst out of it at the same time. Contrasting melodic ideas move smoothly without effort, from one moment to the next, in late-classical fashion

I found it to be an entirely satisfying discovery, keeping my interest unflaggingly. The winds and tympani opening, learnedly martial, sturm und drangish in affect, sounded almost operatic in its declamations. Contrasts of repose and vibrance suggested military advances and tactical retreats, though certainly not to the extent of Haydn’s 100th. The big-bang coda of the Allegro con brio first movement could have ended anyone’s symphony. Luks attended to the tearjerkingly pathetic Andante with inevitable colorings and careful textures. He transformed hopeful starts in the celli to general outpourings of hope before grief once again interrupted. Luks embodied the changing moods and conveyed them to the players and the audience as a musical sacerdotalist. With a marvelously taffy-pulled pianissimo closed the movement (this was helped by the fact that coughing is taboo in the Covid era). A Scherzo ensued, crackling and bustling with invention and excitement. The horn solo, as well as other moments in this movement somehow anticipated the nobility of Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture and Serenade No. 1. Whether shadow boxing, fencing, or waltzing, or looking like a wind-up Olympia[d] Luks led his troops with vivid body imagery, all the while, keeping the powder dry for the stirring close.

A masterful, fresh and original rendition of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony closed the enthusiastically received concert at Symphony Hall on Sunday afternoon. What a great wind section the H + H Period Orchestra now comprises. During the extended bows, Luks called out in particular, Emi Ferguson’s liquid flute artistry, and Todd Williams’s unnaturally secure work on the valveless horn. But it needs to be said that Luks’s great ear for balances and flexibility to accompany solos—an impeccable skill at placing each voice perfectly within textures—gave these artists opportunity to shine, while his original podium manner invariably summoned something extra. Whether he snapped at heels like a border collie or retrieved the sun like a golden setter, he always engaged to the nth degree. The players could not return anything less.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

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