Northbrook Symphony Plays Foerster

Chicago Tribune – April 15, 2015

by music critic John von Rhein

Incredible as it may seem, Sunday marked the North American premiere of Josef Bohuslav Foerster’s Symphony No. 4, a work written 110 years ago.

The Czech composer has inexplicably slipped into obscurity outside his native land, and it took a heroic rescue mission by North-brook Symphony Orchestra music director Lawrence Rapchak to bring this forgotten gem of Czech music to domestic shores. A worthy performance of the Foerster Fourth brought the conductor’s enterprising multiyear series, “In Mahler’s Shadow,” to a grand conclusion at the Sheely Center for the Performing Arts in Northbrook.

Foerster was an intimate of Gustav Mahler’s, and Foerster’s wife sang in Mahler’s choruses at the Hamburg and Vienna operas. There are Mahlerian elements in the fourth of Foerster’s five symphonies, but the most prominent influence is that of Antonin Dvorak, particularly in the scherzo, an utterly charming movement that could easily be mistaken for one of Dvorak’s Slavonic dances. The nearly 50- minute symphony, subtitled “Easter Eve,” recollects the Easter celebrations of Foerster’s childhood, ending in a triumphant resurrection celebration that recalls, in spirit, the finale of Mahler’s own “Resurrection” Symphony.

While not as inspired a melodist as Dvorak, Foerster was his equal in his handling of symphonic structure and development, which makes the symphony well worth the attention of major symphony orchestras. It would make a welcome change from the final three Dvorak symphonies we always hear.

“Easter Eve” benefited from Rapchak’s fervent advocacy and the diligently prepared reading he drew from his musicians. Some of the playing could have stood greater polish (particularly the horn playing) but was remarkably good overall. I found the symphony a rewarding discovery, the prize of a series that included neglected symphonies by Franz Schmidt and Hans Rott.

It shared Sunday’s mostly Czech program with a Dvorak Slavonic dance; the Polka and Fugue from Jaromir Weinberger’s opera “Schwanda the Bagpiper”; and four of Mozart’s Church Sonatas, with Patricia Lee playing the obbligato organ parts in the Mozart works. I found the Weinberger performance rather more inflated than the classic recording by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, though no less fun.

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