Our Man from Prague: Jiří Bělohlávek

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra about his career and about his latest venture, Eugene Onegin at Covent Garden…

Jiří Bělohlávek. ©Clive Barda

Any history of Czechoslovakia that failed to note its contribution to classical music would be wanting. It’s not just that it has produced notable composers – Dvořák, Smetana, Janáček and Martinů for starters – but that Prague has been a musical centre that has given us many great conductors. Again there are too many names to mention but Karel Ančerl, Rafael Kubelík, Václav Neumann and Václav Talich are among the most famous. To that list can be added Jiří Bělohlávek whose own history is rooted in Prague (he was, in fact, born there in 1946) but who is currently best-known for his association with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (he became its Principal Guest Conductor in 1995 and since July 2006 has been Chief Conductor). However, when I speak to him it is at Covent Garden for it is there that he is conducting a revival of the late Steven Pimlott’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

Being a Czech conductor means that you need to consider how central Czech music should be to your work. “We have an incredible amount of wonderful music from Czech composers, so theoretically you could live on that and you would still be able to cover all historical styles. But it’s also very important for a Czech conductor to be seen as a musician who is able to handle any kind of music, so it becomes necessary to put those two elements into a good balance. It’s the same thing too when it comes to deciding how many symphonic works you do and how much opera. The operatic repertoire is enormous and it brings to the conductor so much inspiration which can then be used in symphonic music – and vice versa also, for each genre can fertilise the other.”

Anybody familiar with Jiří’s career might have assumed that his interest in opera came late for he spent more than a decade concentrating on work in the concert hall. It was, however, largely due to the way things were in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. “In our country at that time we didn’t really see the conductors from the opera at concerts: everybody kept to their own jobs.” What this meant for Jiří was early involvement with such orchestras as the Czech Philharmonic, the State Philharmonic in Brno and then with the Prague Symphony Orchestra as principal conductor from 1977 to 1989. But when Jiří looks further back and talks of his childhood it becomes clear that he might have had a career in music that did not involve conducting at all.

“My father was a judge, not a professional musician, but he had private piano study with one of Prague’s foremost piano teachers and played the piano very well. He was a very gifted sight-reader and my introduction to music came both from his piano-playing and from the love of music among his friends, physicians and people like that, who would gather at our house every weekend to play chamber music. It was with my father that I started to play the piano and when he thought I was good enough we began to play together piano versions of symphonies for four hands. But it’s normal for sons not to want to obey their father and I wasn’t prepared to be diligent about it, which meant that it did not work out so well. But then I turned to the cello and after two years of private study it was as a cellist that I went to the Prague Conservatory. It was there that a group of us being friends decided to start a chamber orchestra and I would conduct. Before long I was studying that and the cello and, being greedy, I really wanted to do both, However once I started to study conducting with real intensity it became clear to me that it was impossible to sit on two chairs at once.”

Further study at Prague’s Academy of Music confirmed for Jiří that conducting was what mattered most and it was winning a national competition for young conductors that brought him to the Czech Philharmonic as an assistant. “Getting into the work is a key step for a young conductor” he reflects, but in theory it might have been expected that his success the following year in the 1971 Herbert von Karajan International Conducting Competition would have been more important. If, in fact, it wasn’t, that was due to the political climate then existing. “As a result of that competition I got invitations from both the RIAS Orchestra and from the Israel Philharmonic, but in both cases the State Agency to which we all had to belong wrote letters telling me that they had rejected the offers as inappropriate so any potential benefits from the competition were annihilated. But between 1972 and 1978 I conducted the State Philharmonic in Brno and with them I went abroad, even to America. That was approved as being a state event. Later came contacts with East German orchestras, the Komische Oper and the Dresden Philharmonic.”

Before moving on to opera, it is worth telling the story of how Jiří came to be the founder of yet another Prague orchestra in 1994, the Prague Philharmonia, because the story is such an unusual one. “The idea for it came from the Ministry of Defence. In past decades the Ministry had had its own symphony orchestra, one of very mediocre quality. It had consisted partly of older musicians who had sat there for years and partly of new young players chosen every year from those who were doing their national service. But eventually the Ministry decided that the orchestra was not good enough and should be dissolved. Suddenly, however, money became available, and it was suggested that rather than waste it they should create a new ensemble, but, this time, one of quality. That was when they approached me, but my first reaction was that I did not want to be involved in doing something with the military. The idea did not go away though, and ultimately they put it to me that if I continued to refuse I would be denying this wonderful opportunity to some forty or fifty young musicians. So at that moment I agreed but, in contrast to what had happened before, we started from scratch with nation-wide auditions and took only the cream. What’s more we had a contract with the Ministry of Defence for full funding for five years. It was great until just six months later when the Ministry changed and the contract was treated as void. Luckily for us at that time the Czech parliament passed a law for non-profit making organisations, so we were able to take advantage of that by starting to govern the orchestra as just such an organisation and that is how it exists today.”

As for opera, Jirí’s interest in it dated back to those childhood years. Yet another aspect of his young musical life was singing in the children’s choir in Prague from the age of four or so. This choir would not only take part in performances by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra but would also sing in operas at the National Opera. What’s more it had been a further feature of his father’s piano-playing that he had used it to introduce Jiří to the world of operatic music. However, it was not until 1979 that Jirí was encouraged to explore this side of his musical interests, this being down to Václav Neumann. “It was Mr Neumann who persuaded me to do that by inviting me to the Komische Oper as his second conductor. With him I worked on Smetana’s The Secret conducting the second cast and because it was quite successful I got my own premiere production the following season conducting The Rake’s Progress. Through that I got Jenůfa in Seattle and also Martinů’s The Greek Passion at the Prague National Theatre in 1984. Such pieces as those are so deeply based in Czech national roots, in the language itself and in the volksmusik, that I believe that we who are Czech-born can recognise instinctively the various meanings and layers, the rhythms and the sub-texts. That doesn’t mean that a non-Czech person can’t absorb such things as the success in this field of artists like Mackerras and Kertész confirm but for us that understanding is actually in-built.”

Such observations are very relevant to Jiří’s recent highly acclaimed recording of Janáček’s The Excursions of Mr Broucek on Deutsche Grammophon but our conversation now turns to a very different opera, the one he is preparing for Covent Garden. Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is unusual in devoting one whole scene, Scene 2 of Act One, to a long solo sequence (itself usually referred to as ‘Tatiana’s Letter Scene’) with an introduction and postlude shared only with Tatiana’s nurse. It’s a set-up useful to take as an example when discussing with Jirí how he sees his work with singers, and all the more so because on this occasion the role of Tatiana is being shared by Hibla Gerzmava and Marina Poplavskaya.

“Dealing with the human voice is quite different from dealing with the instruments of the orchestra because it is a much more fragile instrument and it’s not like an orchestral instrument which, in theory at least, you could get to repeat something over and over. Everything with a singer has to be very carefully measured and, although some singers may think that they have to obey their conductor, that is not what I want them to feel. It’s true that I know as the conductor what I would like to achieve, but my approach is always to encourage them to sing as they feel it and imagine it. Then I try to accommodate that into my own vision by offering suggestions. Ideally I think that the final version should be the result of mutual agreement between the singer and the conductor.

“In this case I find that Hibla and Marina each have a different viewpoint and indeed the ‘Letter Scene’ always has its difficulties because it encompasses so many changes: of emotion, of tempo, of drama. I am trying to assimilate that and also to accommodate both of my singers, each of whom has a clear approach to the scene. It’s not that the concept is completely different one from the other and some of the variations are more or less technical: differences in tempo at certain points, the timings and emphasis on a high note. Nevertheless my impression at this stage is of a certain contrast of approach, one that interconnects with the dramatic interpretation being offered. Hibla wants to bring out girlish spontaneity more than Marina does and that fact encourages Hibla to rely on intuition more whereas with Marina her intellect is the guiding light to how she interprets the role. That’s what I sense and it’s wonderful to be working with both of them.”

One final point that I touch on is to ask Jiří if Tchaikovsky has suffered from the same musical snobbery in Czechoslovakia that led so many intellectual English music-lovers in the 1960s to disdain a composer whose works were so popular. “I think that Tchaikovsky is absolutely marvellous”, he says, before adding that he has not himself encountered the attitude that I have described. My comments do, however, lead him to quote an instance of something comparable and, appropriately, it takes us back to Czech music. “In Germany I came across the opinion that Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances were no more than light pieces of no significance, but they are jewels, first-grade jewels – and, what is more, interpreting them properly is for the conductor twice as difficult as any if his symphonies.”

  • Eugene Onegin opens on 8 March 2008 at 12.30 p.m., continues on 10 March at 7.30 p.m., and runs until 7 April
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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