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At BSO, a Czech conductor’s bold return

Thursday night at Symphony Hall, Jakub Hrusa led the BSO in works by Janacek, Rachmaninoff, and Dvorak

Jakub Hrůša led Czech pianist Lukáš Vondráček and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall, Thursday.Winslow Townson

Soldiering on with parts of normal life while taking extra precautions: That’s how many are dealing with the pandemic in their private lives, and it also seems to be the current approach of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Everyone wears masks, we show our proof of vaccination, and things basically go according to plans. Except for when they don’t.

This week’s program was originally scheduled to include Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass, a special-occasion work the BSO has not performed in more than two decades. But the piece would have required the unmasked singing of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which was still apparently a bridge too far. Let’s hope the same fate does not befall Britten’s “War Requiem,” scheduled for two months from now. At least as of Friday, the Britten is still on the docket, and the chorus began rehearsing this week.


For Thursday’s reconfigured program, visiting Czech conductor Jakub Hrusa preserved the night’s original symphonic staple (Dvorak Symphony No. 6) but swapped out the Mass for Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, with the Czech pianist Lukas Vondracek as soloist in his BSO debut. Presumably for the sake of preserving a second link to the original program, Hrusa, back for the first time since his own 2016 subscription debut, also included a brief Janacek orchestral work entitled “Jealousy.”

Interestingly, “Jealousy” never found its originally intended home in the theatre. Written in 1894 in preparation for his searing third opera “Jenufa,” Janacek ultimately chose to deploy this score as a freestanding concert work. But even on those terms, and despite its vibrancy, “Jealousy” remains on the outer edges of the repertoire. Prior to Thursday’s performance, it had never been played by the BSO, which has also never played a note of “Jenufa”. Given all of that, credit goes to Hrusa for leading a compelling, deftly characterized performance, one that made a solid case for this piece as an effective curtain-raiser.


The rest of this substitute program also hit its mark. As a pianist, Vondracek has made something of a specialty of the Rachmaninoff Concertos and is now recording the full cycle with the Prague Symphony Orchestra. As he plays he cuts an unusual profile, hunching intensely over the keyboard like a lion ready to pounce. His touch, however, is much more feline than leonine, and while his account did not lack for firepower, his playing stood out most in its glittering, featherweight passagework and in its overall command of the work’s dark, rhetorical drama.

Balances with the orchestra were at times askew, but Vondracek ultimately triumphed and drove the audience swiftly to its feet. The hall kept cheering until he sat down again at the piano (there is no faster way to hush a crowd). Following Rachmaninoff’s Second with more fireworks would have been like capping dessert with dessert, so for his encore Vondracek wisely tacked in the opposite direction, unspooling a lyrical, sensitively judged account of Schumann’s sky-washed “Traumerei.”

After intermission Hrusa pulled out all the stops for Dvorak’s Sixth, whipping up a reading by turns bold, brash and stylish. Energy never flagged, nor did a sense of structural clarity. And the orchestra, with special contributions from flutist Elizabeth Rowe, was with him at every turn.


At Symphony Hall, Thursday night (repeats Feb. 5)

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.