The Czech Philharmonic begins an 11-city tour of the United States on November 4, six years after the orchestra’s last US visit. Led by Music Director Jiří Bělohlávek, the Philharmonic will appear in centres on both the West and East Coasts, the tour culminating in performances at New York’s Carnegie Hall and the National Cathedral in Washington DC. The featured guest artists are French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Czech violinist Josef Špaček and the Prague Philharmonic Choir and Soloists.
The performance in Washington’s National Cathedral on November 17th has a special significance, as it marks the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution which ended 41 years of Communist rule in Czechoslavakia and saw Vaclav Havel elected as President of the Czech Republic. The Philharmonic will play Dvořák’s Symphony No 9, From the New World, and Smetana’s Vltava (My Homeland), in a performance forming part of a wider celebration which also includes the unveiling of a bust of Vaclav Havel in the US Capitol Building.
The Czech Philharmonic has been in existence since June 7, 1894. Initially founded as an organization “for the enhancement of musical art in Prague”, it was also a means of providing pensions for its musicians – who were members of the National Theatre Orchestra in Prague – and their widows and orphans. The orchestra gave its first concert on January 4, 1896, at the Rudolfinum cultural center in Prague, under the baton of Antonin Dvořák, with a performance of three of the conductor’s own works – the third Slavonic Rhapsody, the world premiere of Biblical Songs Nos. 1-5, the Othello overture, and his New World Symphony.
Until 1901, the Philharmonic was little more than what was referred to as “a noble outlet for the leisure time activities of the musicians of the National Theatre”, who were committed to giving at least four large symphonic concerts each year. In February of 1901, following a disagreement with the head of the National Theatre Opera, the musicians were dismissed, so they established the Czech Philharmonic as a self-standing symphony orchestra, with Ludvík Vítězkav Čelanský as its first Chief Conductor.
The fledgling orchestra wasn’t short of impressive guest conductors – Edvard Grieg led the orchestra for a performance in April 1903, and Gustav Mahler conducted the world premiere of his Symphony No 7 in 1908. In later years, marking auspicious occasions, a rehearsal for Josef Suk’s new work, Zráni was taking place on the day that Czechoslovakia declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire (October 28, 1918), Igor Stravinsky, appeared as piano soloist in 1930 for a concert in honor of the 80th birthday of Tomáš Masaryk (President of the First Czechoslovak Republic), Rafael Kubelík, at the age of 19, made his first appearance with the orchestra in autumn 1941, (he later became Chief Conductor), Karel Ančerl led the Philharmonic in the Czechoslovak premiere of Bohuslav Martinů’s Symphony No 6 in February 1956, and in May 1966, Darius Milhaud conducted his Music for Prague.
Amongst the numerous awards and nominations received by the Czech Philharmonic are ten Grands Prix du Disque de l’Académie Charles-Cros, five Grand Prix du Disque de l’Académie française, several Cannes Classical Awards, a position in Gramophone’s Top 20 Best Orchestras in the World (2008), as well as nominations for Grammy and Gramophone Awards.
The Rudolfinum is still home to the Philharmonic. It houses the Dvořák Hall, one of the world’s most beautiful concert halls, and is also the centre for the ensemble’s new Orchestral Academy. Founded in 1885 as a multipurpose cultural facility, the Rudolfinum occupies a position central to artistic life in the Czech Republic, hosting concerts, exhibitions and education programmes – all of which are vital to the heritage of the nation.
Under Music Director Jiří Bělohlávek, the Czech Philharmonic is now entering its 119th season. Maestro Bělohlávek returned to the orchestra as its Chief Conductor in 2012, following an absence of 20 years, to resume a partnership which is considered to be amongst the most celebrated in the history of the Philharmonic.
During his career, Jiří Bělohlvek has conducted performances in the major opera houses of the world, and, from 1995, served as Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra for five years. He was appointed its Chief Conductor in 2006, conducted the orchestra at the Last Night of the Proms in 2007 and again in 2010, and in 2012 was given an honorary CBE for services to music by H M Queen Elizabeth II. His list of recordings is extensive, and he was the first conductor since Herbert von Karajan to receive the Gramophone Award for Orchestral Recording two years running.
Perhaps the most auspicious achievement by Maestro Bčlohlávek and the Philharmonic has been the recording, between 2012 and 2014, of the complete symphonies and concertos of Antonin Dvořák on the Decca label. A documentary, Sketches of Dvořák, by renowned arts director Barbara Willis Sweete, has recently been released, covering the recording of these works. It features live performances, studio work and interviews with Maestro Bělohlávek, the musicians, administration and surviving members of Antonin Dvořák’s family.
French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet has been a much sought-after performer on the concert stages of the world for the past 30 years. Elegant and stylish, and possessing an enviable combination of technical expertise and musical sensitivity, Mr Thibaudet has a repertoire which ranges from the classics to jazz to scores for film and television, drawing reviews such as “A virtuoso with pronounced musical depth” (Los Angeles Times), “Elegance, color, and imagination” (The New York Times) and “Sensitivity and effortless virtuosity are the hallmarks of his style” (The Sunday Times, London). On this tour, he will perform the only work on the programme not by a Czech composer – the Liszt Piano Concerto No 2.
The violin soloist, Josef Špaček, is also concert master of the Czech Philharmonic. Described as one of the most talented virtuosos of his generation, he has performed with orchestras in Europe, the US and Asia, and as a recitalist at music festivals around the world. Following his appearance with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Philadelphia Enquirer wrote of “his high-charisma playing …. fueled by priceless musical comprehension”.
The Prague Philharmonic Choir, led by principal conductor Lukáš Vasilek, is a professional choral ensemble of almost 70 members with a history, going back 80 years, of performing and recording all over the world. It collaborates with renowned orchestras and conductors of the international music scene, and is regarded as one of the most popular choirs in Europe.
Full details of the Czech Philharmonic’s US itinerary and programmes can be found on: http://www.cami.com/?webid=114