Reinventing the Czech Philharmonic

After a restless couple of decades for the Czech Philharmonic, Mark Powell journeys to Prague and finds a wholly revitalised orchestra

Prague’s historic Rudolfinum auditorium is nestled on the banks of the tranquil Vltava river. A wide run of stone steps rises steeply from an expansive forecourt to three towering, statue-flanked doorways precisely the sort of imposing entrance you’d expect at the flagship classical venue of a nation with a long and illustrious history in the field.

Home to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, the Rudolfinum resumed its original role as a music venue during World War II, having served lengthy stretches of the earlier 20th century as a repurposed political HQ for the former Czechoslovakia. Inside, the Neo-Renaissance 1870s building boasts high ceilings, marbled floors and echoing, wood-panelled galleries. The private offices at the heart of the complex could be lifted straight from a lavish period drama, with walnut desks and grand pianos reflecting the autumnal treetops of Letná Park across the water.

On the evening of the Czech Phil’s 119th season concert launch, I sit in one such office with the orchestra’s executive director David Mareček, already sporting a formal tuxedo and bow tie. Despite it being less than an hour until show time, he’s talking me through the orchestra’s history, and in particular what he readily admits has been a somewhat tumultuous last 25 years.

‘It really began in 1989 with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Velvet Revolution,’ Mareček explains. ‘Until then, the orchestra had always had Czech chief conductors, starting with Antonín Dvořák in 1896. When things here suddenly opened up to Western culture, the orchestra management realised it could bring in people from abroad. They thought that it would help, that it would result in more tours and recording opportunities. In reality, it didn’t.’

Outspoken British classical commentator Norman Lebrecht described the difficult period that followed as one of ‘free market madness’ for the Czech Phil. ‘That’s exaggerating things a bit,’ smiles Mareček, ‘but the orchestra’s decisions at the time reflected an overall feeling in the country.’

The short-term effect was certainly unsettling: respected Prague-born chief conductor Jiří Bělohlávek prematurely resigned from his post, making way for Germany’s Gerd Albrecht to be voted in by an orchestra clearly much divided on the issue.

Over the next two decades, the Czech Phil would experience an uncharacteristically rapid turnaround of successive chief conductors – Russian Vladimir Ashkenazy’s seven-year tenure (1996-2003) was the longest of this notably uneasy era, with the most recent to leave the role being Israeli Eliahu Inbal (2009-12).

Czech Philharmonic © Martin Kabat
Czech Philharmonic © Martin Kabat

‘In my opinion, this is one of the reasons the orchestra suffered,’ says Mareček. ‘If you look at, say, Berlin Phil, the chief conductor is always there for 10 years or more. Of course the chief conductor has to be great, and ours were… but it’s also very important that they’re willing to stay for a good length of time.’

Predictably, money was also an issue. ‘In the communist period, the orchestra was quite privileged; they could travel, and earned well from tours and recordings,’ Mareček explains. ‘After the Velvet Revolution, everybody could travel, so it wasn’t such a privilege any more. The money was no longer very good either; salaries dropped low compared to other professions. The prestige was gone.

‘Then we began this quick succession of chief conductors, and little by little I would say the orchestra lost stability, lost face. It was frustrated, underpaid, and towards the end of this awkward 20-year period, it began to experience fast changes in management.There were quarrels between orchestra and management about financing more recordings. The long-term director left, and another CEO stepped in who was forced to leave by the Ministry of Culture after nine months. He was replaced for just two months, then the Ministry sent a replacement for six months…it was a difficult period.’

It was into this turbulent environment that Mareček and his colleagues stepped as a team, tasked with repairing somewhat tarnished reputations both within the orchestra and externally. ‘A core part of our vision from the start was to bring back Jiří Bělohlávek, the best-known Czech conductor these days. Our aim had to be to rebuild the reputation of the orchestra slowly, but also to improve the conditions the players were working in.

‘Together with Jiří and the Ministry of Culture, we put a plan together: Jiří pledged to come back to the orchestra if the conditions for the players were improved, and the Ministry pledged to provide the money for reform if we, the new management team, vowed to make it happen. So we started to negotiate with the orchestra.

‘Of course it was tough, because we wanted more work from them, more recordings on prestigious labels done for free, more weekly concerts and rehearsals, more tours, and more rigorous internal regulations – in other words, the option to fire people if they didn’t perform. Of course we don’t ever want to do that, but it’s all part of creating a more professional structure.’

The new structure was wrestled into being through lengthy and difficult negotiations between the orchestra, the unions, the artistic committee and the legal teams, but eventually agreement was reached. ‘Then, two things happened that had a major effect on the new setup,’ says Mareček. ‘One was the funding coming through from the Ministry, and the other was the [2011] earthquake in Japan.

‘We were over there for our first tour when it struck. Thankfully we were in Kyushu, and the epicentre was much further north, but of course we had to cancel the rest of the shows and get the orchestra home safely. The fact that our players saw this new management team working around the clock for them really helped us to win their trust.’

The eventual arrival of the promised funds from the government had an equally positive impact on morale: at the end of an 18- month restructuring process, orchestra salaries had been raised by 60 per cent. Jiří Bělohlávek took up the chief conductor post, and thus began the current era of the rejuvenated Czech Phil.

‘I can’t say it’s been entirely smooth since then,’ says Mareček, ‘because of course it never is. But the most important thing is that now we all pull in the same direction. The orchestra is much more motivated, because they’re getting many more opportunities – they recently recorded the Dvořák Complete Symphonies & Concertos for Decca; we’re doing 50 foreign concerts this year when before it would’ve been more like 20. We’re touring the US [4-17 November], the UK [18-25 April 2015], Spain, and we have a residency at the Vienna Musikverein [19-22 March 2015].’

Along with key structural changes, an overall rebranding and renewed audience-building drive is also proving successful. Czech Phil concerts were previously averaging around 65 per cent capacity; Mareček now puts the figure at ‘more like 90-95 per cent’.

Josef Spacek with the Czech Phil © Martin Kabat
Josef Spacek with the Czech Phil © Martin Kabat

The future looks bright, but Mareček emphasises that there’s more the team wants to do. ‘Recording is something we really want to focus on in the immediate future,’ he states. ‘One of the more difficult aspects of that has been finding a really good, well-known label to establish a relationship with, and now we have one with Decca, we want to keep it and do more projects with them. So of course we’re very keen to negotiate that over the next two to three months.

‘We also want to keep building our tours – with recent bookings we’ve achieved concerts at many of the halls we really wanted, but now we’re interested in more residencies, and in getting to more big festivals.’

Relationship-building with the international circle of guest conductors is also high on the agenda. There are already strong ties with the likes of principal guest Manfred Honeck, and more being built all the time (Semyon Bychkov was one of a number of recent high-profile names to work with the Czech Phil).

‘We need more of those sorts of conductors, and certainly it’s hard to achieve at times, because the orchestra perhaps didn’t do enough to invite them in the past when those people were younger and more available. Now they tend to be extremely busy, and it doesn’t matter what you can offer in terms of money or programming if the main challenge is simply struggling to make the time. But you hold out, keep negotiations going, and eventually you hope a window will open up. That’s what happened for us with Bychkov, and with Valery Gergiev, who were both very busy. And of course, they liked the orchestra very much when they came here…’

The next day, I meet with Jiří Bělohlávek, and the pervading theme of renewal and rejuvenation continues. For Bělohlávek, the current period of tenure he began in 2012 feels, like a sort of homecoming. ‘I would describe it as having come full circle,’ he nods. ‘It’s feels to me like it’s been quite a natural development, but now I can say that we’ve finally achieved much of the general shape we spent a long time aiming for. We’ve got to the end of the first big step, as it were. In art, of course, the product is never ‘finished’ – people’s skills are constantly developing, we have a lot of young talent coming through, and it’s essential for them to keep refining and learning about the life of a professional orchestra player. We’re in a strong position to do that now. I definitely feel I’m in the right place at the right time.’

Touring and recording are equally important for Bělohlávek, who notes that while the orchestra’s process of rebuilding and consolida- tion is continuing nicely, there’s ‘always more to do, and always significant costs to doing it to the highest standards. Financially we’re already in a much better position than a few years ago, but of course there’s always more distance to go before things are fully satisfactory.’

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Despite the caution underpinning the renewed optimism at the Rudolfinum, the increased stability of the setup around the orchestra is clearly starting to pay dividends: the US tour this November features high-profile visits to prestigious venues like Carnegie Hall and Washington National Cathedral.

When playing abroad, Bělohlávek agrees, the Czech Phil plays the role of cultural ambassador; it becomes a direct conduit for the world to hear the majestic works of Dvořák played with authentic home-nation spirit. Does this feel limiting, or liberating?

‘It’s part of our raison d’être, to be representative of Czech music and give the best possible interpretation of it,’ he says. ‘We’re very proud of that, always. At the same time, of course, there are only so many concerts in the year, and only so many opportunities to play non-heritage repertoires, and those are equally important to us in terms of maintaining our highest possible quality. So we must work hard to maintain that balance, and that vitality.’

Happily, they appear to be doing just that. At the opening concert of the 119th season that evening, young violinist Josef Špaček plays moving solos in stirring performances of Fišer’s Fifteen Prints After Dürer’s Apocalypse and Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony. It seems to embody a new vibrancy that begins with Bělohlávek and carries right through the massed ranks of the orchestra, the building, the audience, and out into the darkness of Jan Palach square.