From the magazine of the Czech Philharmonic: Jiří Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic 2012–2017

In February 2018, the magazine of the Czech Philharmonic published an article looking back at Jiří Bělohlávek’s time with the Czech Philharmonic. We republish the article here by courtesy of the author Pavlína Landová.

Jiří Bělohlávek in the Czech Philharmonic 2012–2017

In addition to concerts and other projects, the second half of the 122nd season of the Czech Philharmonic is going to remember its chief-conductor Jiří Bělohlávek. On the 24th of February he would have turned seventy-two and on the 31stof May it will be a year since his untimely death. To commemorate this, we are preparing an exhibition to be displayed at the Rudolfinum, which will present Jiří Bělohlávek’s personality, his musicianship and profession and uncover his professional and personal ties to the Czech Philharmonic. 

We will also look into Jiří Bělohlávek’s activities abroad and his tireless and thorough propagation of Czech music and his mission to include Czech music in the programmes of many orchestras and recording companies. The exhibition will focus on the period beginning in the 2012/2013 season, when Mr. Bělohlávek returned as the chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic after twenty years. The exhibition will open to the public at the end of March.

From the 117th season onwards, an artist who had gained a strong reputation on the world’s stages appeared before the Czech Philharmonic. “I feel that perhaps the time has come when I will be able to put everything I learned abroad to good use at home. And I’m very happy about that,” he told the Harmonie magazine in autumn 2012.

From the very start of his working with the Czech Philharmonic, Bělohlávek lived up to his reputation of a well-prepared conductor who does not give up until he hears from the orchestra exactly what he wants to hear. At first, the predominant atmosphere on the stage was only of mutual respect and caution, but this gradually transformed as the orchestra and the chief conductor dived deeper and deeper into the realm of music. Jiří Bělohlávek knew that good work takes a lot of effort and requires adequate background. He was not indifferent to how much the players are remunerated, he spoke up and he managed to change the financial conditions. He was the kind of boss who was interested in all aspects of the life of the orchestra, open to new impulses: the foundation of the orchestral academy, competitions for composers and for performers, he also enjoyed various educational projects.

Under Bělohlávek, our foremost orchestra started to be busy. New collaboration was established with the renowned Decca Classic label, which recorded and released a complete set of Dvořák’s symphonies, concertos, Slavonic Dances and Stabat Mater. A producer at the Unitel company came up with the idea of recording complete symphonies of Martinů. The orchestra re-conquered prestigious halls and stages around the world. After more than ten years they visited Carnegie Hall, after thirteen years the Wiener Konzerthaus, after eight years the concert hall of the Berlin Philharmonic and after twenty years the Royal Festival Hall in London. The orchestra gave a total of 269 concerts, 155 of which were abroad, under Bělohlávek’s baton. His programme dramaturgy was based on Czech music, especially when on tours abroad. The combination of the Czech Philharmonic, Jiří Bělohlávek and Czech music was a magnet for concert agents abroad. They visited a total of 18 countries in Europe, in the USA and the Far East - Japan, China and South Korea. Following their performance, they were often invited to come back. One of the great successes was the performance of Janáček’s Jenůfa at London’s Southbank Centre on 18 April 2016. The solo parts were sung by a Czech and Slovak cast with the exception of Karita Mattila performing Kostelnička, in flawless Czech. The success in London was unprecedented as testified by the review headlines: “The conductor Jiří Bělohlávek whipped each act up to a torrid conclusion and galvanised a terrific cast“, “Tenderness and jubilation“, “Music of surpassing beauty“.

The Czech audience could hear the same concert performance of the opera three days before, on 15 April. Jiří Bělohlávek was a great fan of concert performances of operas. In addition to Jenůfa, he performed Bohuslav Martinů’s one-act opera “What Men Live By” in subscription concerts in December 2014. Music reviews saw the inclusion of the work into the programme of the 2014/2015 season as an exceptional and significant deed which brought into life a lesser-known, but beautiful opera. The Harmonie magazine (2/2015) wrote that the performance had “parameters of musical perfection”. In addition to works by Martinů, Dvořák, Janáček, Smetana and Suk, their concerts also offered works of the world repertoire by Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Mahler, Shostakovich and others, as well as works of 20th century music. Together they also performed the winning composition of the competition organized by the Czech Philharmonic, “The Melancholic Chicken” by Jan Ryant Dřízal.

Jiří Bělohlávek lived with the musicians not only on the stage. He regularly took part in the meetings of the Artistic Board and consulted all creative and organizational issues the institution was dealing with. He was interested in selecting the right instruments for purchase, he went to rehearsals and concerts conducted by his colleagues. The Czech Philharmonic was his life and he devoted much of his energy to it. And at the same time – most remarkably – he managed to be active outside of his orchestra. He conducted one hundred and two concerts in eleven countries of Europe and the USA. In addition to concert programmes, he staged five operas: Dvořák’s Rusalka at the Wiener Staatsoper (January and February 2014), Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades in Zurich (April and May 2014), Janáček’s Jenůfa at the Opera San Francisco (June and July 2016), and concert performances of Smetana’s Dalibor (2 May 2015) and Janáček’s The Makropulos Affair (19 August 2016) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In addition, he was a frequent guest of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra (starting in the 2013/2014 season, he was appointed its permanent guest conductor). He also conducted Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya, Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia, Orquesta Nacional de España, the German Gewandhausorchester, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Wiener Symphoniker,  Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, the Chinese Symphony Orchestras in Shanghai and Beijing, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. In December 2016, he appeared before the New York Philharmonic. And of course, he was in regular contact with Czech orchestras, especially the PKF - Prague Philharmonia, which he had founded in 1994.

Between September 2012 and January 2018, a total of forty CDs and DVDs were released with Jiří Bělohlávek’s recordings. Our first orchestra is featured on fifteen of them, including reissues of older recordings. As a major propagator of Czech music around the world, Bělohlávek recorded a complete set of Bohuslav Martinů symphonies with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which won the prestigious Gramophone Award in September 2012 and a year later won the same prize for Suk’s A Summer’s Tale. The H/Mundi company released The Bartered Bride in 2012 and Onyx released Dalibor in 2015, again with the BBC Orchestra.

Quite remarkably, Jiří Bělohlávek managed all this at a time when he was suffering from a serious illness. His friendship with the Czech Philharmonic deepened. The musicians were offering him their full support and their collaboration continued. As long as he could stand on the stage and create, he was happy. When performing, he was full of energy. Music in general and the tones of the Czech Philharmonic in particular energized and strengthened him. In November 2012 he expressed his wish for “I would like to return to the Czech Philharmonic the audiences’ respect it deserves. So that people could perceive the orchestra as their foremost representative of Czech symphonic music.” And his wish came true. His diligence, will to live, determination, humour and ability to plan for the future years – this was professor Bělohlávek’s, the Czech Philharmonic chief conductor’s, approach to the reality of life.

Much of Jiří Bělohlávek’s activity is documented by photographs and other materials which will be on display at the exhibition at the Rudolfinum. We are going to inform you in the following weeks about the time of the opening and duration of the exhibition on our website and Facebook page of the Czech Philharmonic. 

Author: Pavlína Landová

The article was published on 12 February 2018 in the Magazine of the Czech Philharmonic.