Remembering Jirí Belohlávek

Only last year, Jirí Belohlávek spoke to James Naughtie about Dvorák, Janáček, and his home city of Prague. 


‘I hate that word – exciting.’


I’m sitting with Jirí Belohlávek in his room at the Rudolfinum in Prague, home of the Czech Philharmonic, and he’s preparing for his third concert of the week. It’s quiet, and we’re alone. He’s looking his years as he recovers from illness, and talks very quietly. But don’t imagine that everything is calm.

An hour later, he produces an electrifying performance in the Dvorák auditorium in the beautiful neo-Renaissance building – the first symphonies of Martin∞ and Mahler – and ‘exciting’ is precisely word that you might choose to describe the atmosphere.

‘I’ll tell you why I dislike the word,’ he says. ‘Everything is supposed to be exciting. Quick and thrilling. No. What is needed is quality. That is exciting enough.’

This is a state of mind. On the platform, he produces all the energy that has always characterised his performances and the audience responds with great warmth. There’s not an empty seat. Yet he’s anxious not to be seen to be producing an easy or a shallow performance for the sake of quick enjoyment.

‘There are zillions of ways in which people can spend their time. Everything is easy, at the touch of a switch. I’m afraid that entertainment is sometimes too easy… really very shallow. And I think this is our big problem.

You can’t deal with this by criticism – telling people what they should do. You have to demonstrate to the person coming to the concert hall that there is something else. You must be convincing, and that is not easy. But if you produce quality, you will convince them.’

He says this with some confidence, because the story of the orchestra since his return to his home city in 2012 has been one of success. Their subscription concerts are heavily booked, and indeed when the decision was made to play the programme three times a week instead of two – quite a bold decision when the house was running at around 75 per cent capacity – the audience not only held up at first, but then increased.

This era in the orchestra’s story is one of success, after some difficult years. Jirí Belohlávek walked out as principal conductor in the early 1990s after the impact of the so-called Velvet Revolution of 1989 led to a desire to appoint a conductor from abroad (Gerd Albrecht succeeded him and stayed for three years). Rather like the post-war uncertainty, which led Rafael Kubelík to emigrate in despair at the opening of the Communist period, the new freedom was difficult.

But Belohlávek, now in his 70th year, was persuaded back to the job he always wanted to resume, having spent much of the intervening period in London with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, of which he is now conductor laureate. And the atmosphere in the Rudolfinum is confident.

The auditorium and the surrounding grand salons have been sympathetically refurbished and the place has a lively spirit with an audience spanning all ages and an orchestra on top form (with the considerable benefit of having 124 players permanently on the books, and a flourishing academy for young talent). Conductors want to come. Semyon Bychkov and Valery Gergiev are giving three concerts each in the next two weeks.

The enviable legacy of the orchestra, despite periods of political agony, is its centrality to life in Prague. The Rudolfinum is in the heart of the city, sitting on the Vltava River, and it’s hard to sit here – in the hall where Dvoπák conducted the orchestra’s first performance in 1896 – without feeling a sense of continuity. But that’s misleading.

‘It is true that this orchestra, from the very beginning, has always had such a special place.’ But Belohlávek is wary. ‘Such a position is very dangerous if you take it for granted. One has always to be aware that such a thing is very precious – very precious and precarious. It must be safeguarded and nurtured by our everyday work.’

That means holding the audience that has committed itself to subscription concerts, and attracting the next generation. And some things are the same the world over. Visitors to Prague often lap up the city’s cultural offerings and imagine that everything must be easier in such a setting, but Belohlávek paints a picture of Czech musical life that reveals difficulties familiar elsewhere.

‘I’m afraid that the system of schooling has deteriorated a great deal, artistically speaking. In our society, people concentrate on the entertainment they can get so easily. The knowledge of our composers – their music, our culture – is not good. We have to work hard to bring it to people who don’t know. I think they are not being provided with the right impulses, and our job is to change that.’

Built into the orchestra’s life is a commitment to safeguard and burnish the Czech musical legacy. It has an enviable recording history (the Supraphon label, so familiar from the LP era, has brought performances to audiences around the world) and it’s impossible to miss in Belohlávek his passion for the repertoire that he learned as a student in Prague, where he studied the cello.

‘As the flagship orchestra, we have the wonderful and splendid duty to play Czech music as well as we can, but you know that does have a negative side too. You have to be very careful not to concentrate on a limited repertoire. We have to be bold as well, otherwise the orchestra will not play at its best, and develop in the way that I want.

‘The quality of players these days is so high that there are great possibilities. We talk about the difficulties – a generation that may not know much about great music – and this is a paradox. Orchestras are much better than they were; there are so many regional orchestras that now do a very decent job.’

So as he approaches his seventies, there’s no sense of complacency in a conductor who’s come home and might be expected to be relaxing in the knowledge that his orchestra is playing well and thriving with its public.

‘If you begin to be bored, you should go home. Immediately. Indeed I think it would be a crime to stay, because you would be cheating the people – your musicians and your audiences. It would be unthinkable to stay.’

He speaks of the excitement he still feels for works he learned as a youngster.

‘Take Czech music. One doesn’t need any special approach, I think. You simply have to try to understand, and to take it absolutely seriously always, despite having played a work a hundred times. This approach gives me security that I won’t just slip into the routine.

‘If I’m starting another performance of Dvorák’s New World Symphony, I’m not too lazy to take the score and read it again, and always – absolutely always – I find something that refreshes me, or refreshes my memory and startles me even now. Because you are changing as a person and your antennae and your view are changing too. Suddenly you can see things in a different light, with different shades. This is such a very exciting moment.’

Then an admission. Works that he studied in his early years come back quickly – ‘I open the drawer, and there they are, with my markings’ – and he enjoys the familiarity and the new insights that always flood in. ‘But it is interesting. Anything I have learned more recently, I find much more difficult. Sometimes desperately so.

‘It comes, of course. But I have to work much harder, and sometimes that is difficult. But to come to work which I deeply inhaled many years ago, and to bring to it a certain amount of experience, that is such a pleasure. I study it again and at last I can see the whole structure. We talked about excitement. Well that is real excitement!’

The complete Dvorák symphonies and concertos on Decca reveal the richness of those years of work. With Alisa Weilerstein, Frank Peter Zimmermann and Garrick Ohlsson as the cello, violin and piano soloists you hear an orchestra that seems determined to live up to the reputation it had already gained around the world by the time Kubelík departed in 1948, at the start of many difficult years. Weilerstein’s performance of the Cello Concerto, in particular, received glowing reviews in BBC Music Magazine and elsewhere, and there are other performances in this set that give great pleasure.

There’s a chance to hear the orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall on 18 April when they give a concert performance of Jenu˚fa, with a cast including Adriana Kohutkova and Karita Mattila. When we talk about Janáček, it’s inevitable that the name of Sir Charles Mackerras comes up, because it was he who championed the composer so successfully outside his own country; Belohlávek makes the surprising suggestion that in the Czech Republic these days his music is not at all well-known, especially among the young.

‘I am saying this with a feeling of great sorrow. I think it is true that Janáček is more popular in Britain than he is here.’

So he’s looking forward to bringing the opera to the concert stage in London. ‘I do think that operatic performances for an orchestra are a very good thing. It is refreshing and opens a new horizon on the repertoire. Of course sometimes it is quite difficult – getting a symphony orchestra to perform the score of a verismo opera isn’t easy, because they are not always comfortable with it. But Jenu˚fa? Well, it is so written through, so rich.

‘But, believe me, it will be challenging even for this orchestra. They did one recording – maybe 30 years ago – and if there have been concert performances since then, it would only be one or two. So – this may be surprising – it is going to be a new experience for many of the players. Many of them will never have touched the score.’

And for him?

‘Taking up that score again is marvellous, of course. I am aware that we are performing the opera in concert and therefore it is a heresy, you might say. Part of the artistic whole is going to be missing. But I think I will be pardoned for that.’

He speaks of London with affection, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in particular, where he was first principal guest conductor and then chief conductor for six years from 2006. ‘It is not just that the orchestra is so talented, and so quick. They had a great British sense of fair play.’

I wonder precisely what he means.

‘Well, it is a quality that I wasn’t familiar with elsewhere. Let me put it like this. A player – oboe, horn whatever – is unable in a rehearsal to do exactly what I want, maybe to play to my liking. I could be sure of one thing – that it was because he couldn’t do any better. He was playing absolutely as well as he could.

‘He wasn’t saying “I hate you” or “Go to hell”, which I was used to in some places. That is a really striking quality and I did enjoy it immensely. The ability of the orchestra to devour so much material and still keep a fresh eye on it and to make sense of it is a remarkable quality. I have wonderful friends there still.’

As the time for the concert approaches, I have to leave. He’s been speaking quietly, sipping a cup of tea, seemingly in a tranquil mood. I wonder how tired he might be. An hour later, all that energy pours out in a performance that captivates his audience.

We speak about the hall as I leave, and it brings to mind another thought about London. Will the city get a new concert hall? With the coming of Sir Simon Rattle to the LSO the settled belief now is that at long last the dream will be realised. For conductors like B∑lohlávek it can’t come too soon.

‘I love London, and it needs a new place. 1,800 seats or so? I hope. And if anyone can make it happen, Simon will. Good luck.’

And so I step outside the Rudolfinum and find an audience as expectant as any conductor could wish for. 


This interview by James Naughtie was first published in the March 2016 issue of BBC Music Magazine.