Jirí Belohlávek (1946-2017)

Former BBC Symphony Orchestra chief conductor dies aged 71


Jirí Belohlávek has died at the age of 71.

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In a career lasting nearly 50 years, the Czech conductor held a string of major posts both in his home country and in the UK, where he became familiar to many as the chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He made many acclaimed recordings, most notably of Czech repertoire.

Born in Prague in 1946, Belohlávek started his musical life as a cellist.

After graduating from Prague Conservatory, however, he made the switch from bow to baton when he studied under the great Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache for two years. His big breakthrough came in 1970 when he won the Czech National Conducting Competition, a success that was soon followed by his appointment as assistant conductor of the Czech Philharmonic.

In 1977, the 31-year-old Belohlávek was appointed chief conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra, where he remained for 12 years. His next appointment was, alas, considerably shorter lived and less happy. Made chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic in 1990, he found himself ousted in favour of Gerd Albrecht within a year. His response was to found the Prague Philharmonic, which he conducted as music director until 2004.

Away from the Czech Republic, Belohlávek enjoyed particular success in Britain.

After serving as principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1995 to 2000, in 2006 he accepted the high-profile post of chief conductor itself. By no means a flamboyant character, he took a comparatively low-key approach to the role, conducting his orchestra the Last Night of the Proms just three times in his seven-year stint. He was, though, the first conductor whose first language was not English to deliver the famous Last Night speech, a moment that endeared him to millions watching on TV.

'There are so many memories,' said general manager of the BBC SO Paul Hughes. 'There was always a sense of family with Jirí – we were his musical family and his family were our family. Today we are thinking of his loved ones.'

The end of his time with the BBC SO coincided with a return to the Czech Philharmonic, this time in considerably happier circumstances. Re-appointed as the orchestra’s chief conductor from 2012, Belohlávek had a contract that would have taken him through to the end of 2021-22 season. As even the briefest look at reviews of their recordings shows, this was a period that saw both conductor and the orchestra in their element. In August 2014, for instance, BBC Music Magazine’s Jan Smaczny described their disc of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto with Alisa Weilerstein (Decca) as ‘one of the great ensemble performances of this concerto available’. That said, Belohlávek had been no slouch in the recording studio with the BBC SO either – their sumptuous recording of Suk’s A Summer’s Tale and Prague (Chandos) was the magazine’s October 2012 Recording of the Month.

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Though dogged by ill-health in his final years, Belohlávek continued to conduct regularly. And his keen enthusiasm for the job – sometimes belied by his soft-voiced, phlegmatic nature – never left him. ‘If you begin to be bored, you should go home,’ he told BBC Music Magazine’s James Naughtie in March last year. ‘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’.