Classical composers aren’t like your children. You’re allowed to have favorites.
For Fresno Philharmonic music director Theodore Kuchar, one of the composers he most relishes is Bohuslav Martinu, a Czech composer who died in 1959. The orchestra played Martinu’s Symphony No. 4 in 2005.
As part of the orchestra’s weekend program — which will be performed three times at Shaghoian Hall — Kuchar will once again get to indulge in his inner Martinu with the composer’s Symphony No. 6, a 25-minute piece also known as “Fantaisies symphoniques.”
“I always have had some kind of genetic commitment to work of composers from where my ancestors came — the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Poland,” Kuchar says.
The Martinu piece isn’t the best known on the program. That honor would go to Antonin Dvorak’s famed “New World” Symphony. The third piece, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” featuring guest pianist (and rapidly rising classical star) Lukas Vondracek, is another oft-played favorite.
Chances are you’ve never heard these three pieces played together. Kuchar envisioned an interesting theme for the concert: All three composers are Europeans who lived in the United States for varying lengths of time, and each piece was premiered in this country. Hence, the title of the concert: “From the New World.”
The composers were influenced greatly by their time in America, Kuchar says. Martinu, who fled Europe during World War II, had spent his career up to that point writing works for smaller ensembles. He wrote his six symphonies while living in the U.S. His first, written when he was 51, was commissioned by Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who became a champion of the composer.
In Martinu’s symphonies you can hear shades of Broadway, jazz, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and a young Leonard Bernstein, Kuchar says.
Dvorak, another Czech composer, wrote his “New World” Symphony in 1893, a commission by the New York Philharmonic. The composer’s music during the period in which he lived in New York was highly influenced by 19th century American culture, Kuchar says, including folk music and spirituals.
Rachmaninoff, a Russian, fled the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution of 1917. He spent much of the latter part of his career touring as an acclaimed concert pianist — he gave more than 1,000 concerts in America alone between 1918 and 1943 — and he soaked up a lot of American culture. His “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” premiered in 1934 with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
While Kuchar has performed all three works many times, he’s excited about his concept. “I’ve never put them together before,” he says.
Vondracek, the guest soloist, will be joining the Fresno Philharmonic for the second time. He’s still in his mid-20s, and Kuchar has long been one of his champions. (He conducted the Rachmaninoff piece with Vondracek in Cape Town, South Africa.) He thinks there are great things to come for the young pianist.
“I believe in him like I do few others,” Kuchar says. “I think he’s one of the most phenomenal talents out there.”
You might even compare Vondracek to Martinu in terms of the conductor’s favorites.