From the Magazine of the Czech Philharmonic: Jiří Bělohlávek at Seventy

In February 2016, the magazine of the Czech Philharmonic published a portrait of Jiří Bělohlávek summing up the conductor’s career up to date. We republish the article here by courtesy of the author Lucie Maňourová.

Jiří Bělohlávek at seventy

Jiří Bělohlávek, the chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, will celebrate an important jubilee on Wednesday 24 February 2016. We are looking back at the brilliant career of this extraordinary artist and person. 

Jiří Bělohlávek loved music from an early age and was keenly supported in this love by his father who introduced him to the beautiful world of sounds. When Jiří was four years old, he began to learn to play the piano with his father. At the same time he started singing in the Prague Philharmonic Children’s Choir and appeared in opera productions of the National Theatre in Prague. He enjoyed that very much, he was fascinated by everything that had to do with opera, and whenever he could, he watched opera productions. He was intrigued by the idea of taking part in such a fascinating event such as opera in the future, preferably as the conductor whose creative input is decisive.      

At the age of twelve, he started his cello lessons with the Czech cellist Karel Pravoslav Sádlo. As a fourteen-year-old boy, he created his first unofficial chamber orchestra at the Conservatoire. He graduated from the Conservatoire in two different subjects: cello and conducting. He got fully engaged in the latter during his studies at the Academy for Performing Arts in Prague, influenced by his teachers Bedřich Jaroš, Bohumír Liška, Robert Brock, Alois Klíma and Josef Veselka. While still at the Academy, he became the conductor of a girls’ orchestra Puellarum Pragensis and gave many concerts with them and went on international tours. It was the first official orchestra which the name Bělohlávek was connected to.

In 1968, the renowned Rumanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache came to Prague to conduct the Czech Philharmonic. On the occasion he led a master class for students and Bělohlávek also took part. At the end of the class, Maestro Celibidache invited him personally to come to Stockholm, where he was the chief conductor of the Radio Orchestra, to study with him. Bělohlávek thus became his assistant at rehearsals, had individual consultations and was entrusted with demanding tasks. These intensive studies contributed to Bělohlávek’s victory in the national competition for young conductors in 1970, and a year later in becoming one of the finalists of the Herbert von Karajan conducting competition.

In 1972, Jiří Bělohlávek was appointed the conductor of the State Philharmonic Orchestra Brno and held this first professional post until 1978, having become the chief conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra FOK a year earlier. He went on many successful international tours with both ensembles. He took both ensembles to Japan and the USA for the very first time. During his thirteen years with the Prague Symphony Orchestra FOK (1977-1990), he simultaneously collaborated with Václav Neumann as his assistant and later (from 1981) the permanent conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. Václav Neumann also introduced him to the Berlin Comic Opera and entrusted him with staging the production of Smetana’s Secret with the alternate cast. As a result of his success, Bělohlávek was invited to Berlin again the following year to stage The Rake’s Progress by Igor Stravinsky.

My principal aim is to interpret the composer’s thought in the most faithful manner possible. However, each score, even the most elaborate one, is only a kind of »instructions for use«. You must absorb it and interpret it in your own way. The conductor puts into the interpretation his or her erudition, temperament, imagination, experience, hope…

— From an interview for the Dotyk magazine, 2014

In addition to his intensive work with his own orchestras, Jiří Bělohlávek collaborated with many of the world’s leading orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, New York Philharmonic, Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden and San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He is also currently the permanent guest conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. He appears regularly at festivals in Berlin, Edinburgh, Lucerne, Montreaux, Perth, Salzburg and Tanglewood.

A major challenge for Bělohlávek was the foundation of the PKF – Prague Philharmonia in 1994. He built an orchestra of talented and enthusiastic musicians from scratch and turned it into a first-class chamber ensemble in a very short time. He held the position of its chief conductor and artistic director until 2005.

In 1995, Bělohlávek established professional contact with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and remained its principal guest conductor until 2000. In 2006, he became the orchestra’s chief conductor. In this position, he conducted the Last Night of the Proms three times (in 2007, 2010 and 2012) and was the very first conductor to be entrusted with this prestigious task who did not come from an English-speaking country. He performed many works by Czech composers with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, whose honorary chief conductor he has remained until today, and made many highly acclaimed recordings presenting Czech repertoire - Janáček’s Excursions of Mr. Brouček, Smetana’s Dalibor, the complete set of Bohuslav Martinů’s symphonies and his opera Juliette (with Magdalena Kožená), Suk’s Asrael, Ripening, A Summer’s Tale and his First Symphony.

Bělohlávek’s love of opera was manifested in his long-term collaboration with the National Theatre in Prague. In 1994 he became the principal guest conductor of the Opera of the National Theatre and took the ensemble on tours to Japan and South Korea. Unforgettable productions he conducted included Dvořák’s Rusalka, Janáček’s Jenůfa, Martinů’s Miracles of Mary and Greek Passion and Bizet’s Carmen.

I believe that the emotional dimension plays a much more important role with Czech musicians than anywhere else in the world, or at least as far as I could tell. There is no other way. If they are winning, it must be due to that.

— From an interview for Harmonie magazine, 2012

Jiří Bělohlávek continues to collaborate with the most famous opera houses. During his career, he has directed successful opera productions at the Berlin Opera, Covent Garden, the Glyndebourne Festival (Jenůfa, Káťa Kabanová, Rusalka, Tristan und Isolde), the Metropolitan Opera in New York (Káťa Kabanová, Eugene Onegin, Jenůfa, Rusalka), at the Opéra Bastille in Paris (Rusalka, Juliette, The Bartered Bride), recently at the Vienna State Opera (Rusalka), Zurich Opera (The Queen of Spades) and other venues. This year he will be staging Jenůfa at the Opera San Francisco.

Teaching was an important dimension of Jiří Bělohlávek’s activities. In 1995 he was invited to teach at the Academy for Performing Arts in Prague and, having become Professor (1997), he held the post of the head of the conducting department until 2009. This February he was awarded an honorary degree for his lifelong achievement. Jakub Hrůša, Tomáš Hanus, Tomáš Netopil, Zbyněk Müller, Ondřej Vrabec and Marko Ivanović count among his most successful students.

Jiří Bělohlávek helps and supports young musical talents in other ways, too. With PKF - Prague Philharmonia, he has organized concerts for the Voršilská elementary art school where, among others, they joined a very young violinist Josef Špaček, who is now the concertmaster of the Czech Philharmonic. As the chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, Jiří Bělohlávek conducts also concerts for children and takes part in various educational activities of the orchestra.

Both as a conductor and president of the Prague Spring International Music Festival, Jiří Bělohlávek has always tried to promote the music of Czech authors. His especially close relationship to the legacy of Bohuslav Martinů helped to turn the musical world’s attention to his works. In a similar way, he managed to attract attention of the audiences to lesser-known works of Antonín Dvořák, Leoš Janáček, Bedřich Smetana or Josef Suk. He likes to include the works of other Czech composers who would deserve more attention, such as Josef Bohuslav Foerster, Otakar Ostrčil, Klement Slavický, Luboš Fišer and Vladimír Sommer. Bělohlávek’s interest in Czech compositions led him to initiate a competition for young composers organized by the Czech Philharmonic. He performed the winning composition in 2015 at a subscription concert at the Rudolfinum.

Jiří Bělohlávek’s discography is vast. He became the first conductor after Herbert von Karajan who won the prestigious award of the Gramophone magazine for an orchestral recording in two consecutive years.

His best recordings are those with the Czech Philharmonic – high level of orchestral play combined with Bělohlávek’s deep musical sensitivity result in musical interpretation of extraordinary quality.

— Naxos company on Jiří Bělohlávek’s work

Jiří Bělohlávek’s return to the post of the chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic in 2012 was accepted enthusiastically all over the world. The orchestra with their conductor enjoy unprecedented success both in Prague, where the Czech Philharmonic concerts are attended by more people than in any other time in history, and on international tours. These include a residency at the Musikverein in Vienna and performances in the world’s most prestigious concert halls, such as New York’s Carnegie Hall, the hall of the Berlin Philharmonic, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, the Royal Albert Hall in London performing at the Proms, and many other venues. The orchestra and Jiří Bělohlávek made exquisite recordings of the complete set of Dvořák’s symphonies and concertos for the Decca label, which is regarded by many critics as the new interpretative canon of Dvořák’s work.

Bělohlávek’s further plans with the Czech Philharmonic include both new recordings for Decca and important international tours. In London’s Royal Festival Hall, they are going to play together a concert performance of Janáček’s opera Jenůfa and they are also going to give one concert and one opera concert performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall. They have been invited for another residency at Vienna’s Musikverein and they have plans of tours around Europe, the USA, Canada and Asia.

Author: Lucie Maňourová

The article was published on 24 February 2016 in the Magazine of the Czech Philharmonic.