The Prague Symphony Orchestra has always strived to be on par with the internationally better known Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, and Bělohlávek enhanced its - as much as his own - reputation in a wonderful and fruitful partnership lasting until 1989. Meanwhile, Jiří’s childhood participation in the choir, which often performed in the Prague National Theatre Opera, encouraged him to work in the opera world as well. And it was another highly respected East-European conductor, Václav Neumann, who brought him to the Komische Opera in Berlin in 1979, and Bělohlávek had his first premiere there with the Rake’s Progress in 1980. A decade later, Bělohlávek followed Neumann in a very different situation, in the post of Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.
It was a logical progression, not just because Bělohlávek conducted the CPO on a regular basis already since 1973, to a great critical acclaim. This prestigious orchestra always symbolised the best in the tradition of Czech music and it prided itself in having Czech conductors, and always the best of their generation: Václav Talich, Rafael Kubelík, Karel Ančerl, Václav Neumann and in 1990 deservedly Jiří Bělohlávek. Paradoxically, the “New Order” that followed the Velvet Revolution in 1989, brought many changes to the post-Communist Czechoslovakia and the cultural life underwent a major transformation as part of the parcel. And whilst the Czech Philharmonics enjoyed a very successful and prolific co-operation with Bělohlávek both on the podiums and in the studios, there were trends starting to contemplate whether conductors from abroad would not bring even more valuable – certainly in the economical meaning of the word – experience to the orchestra.
And thus when in 1992 Gerd Albrecht was chosen to take Bělohlávek’s post in 1994, Bělohlávek promptly quit and courageously formed instead in 1993 a brand new orchestra, the Prague Philharmonia. Classical music was always of such prominence in Czechia that Bělohlávek succeeded in assembling the crop of the best and keenest young players and the Prague Philharmonia became under his leadership an instant success; it still continues to play prime role among the Czech orchestras nowadays, with Bělohlávek as its Conductor Laureate. Bělohlávek was by then well known abroad, having travelled the world with the Prague Symphony and Czech Philharmonic orchestras even under the restrictions of the old regime, which quite liked to show and export its best cultural exponents. But without the constraints of the former establishment, Bělohlávek could work with orchestras abroad on a more permanent basis, and after an exceptional debut of Martinů’s Epic of Gilgamesh with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1995, he became its Guest Conductor in the same year. He embarked on his teaching career as well, and after seven years or part time teaching in Brno and Prague, he became Professor at the Prague Music Academy in 1997, where he is now Director of the Department of Conducting: several of his protégés are prominent within the new generation of Czech conductors, even on an international basis, where the names of Jakub Hrůša and Tomáš Hanus are becoming just as familiar. Having his “own” orchestra in Prague gave Bělohlávek enough flexibility, so that he could in the years that followed conduct practically all major orchestras around the world, be it in Paris, Berlin, London, Amsterdam, Vienna, Leipzig, Munich, Dresden, Stockholm, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Washington, Dallas, Toronto, Minneapolis, Houston, St. Louis, Sydney, Melbourne, Tokyo, and many others.
He also regularly appears at festivals as Tanglewood, Salzburg, Edinburgh, Montreux, Locarno, Perth, Schleswig-Holstein, Lucerne, Berlin, not forgetting the PROMS in London and the Prague Spring Festival, of which he is actually the Chairman. Similarly, his career in the world of opera led him from being the Principal Guest Conductor at the Prague’s National Theatre Opera to highly acclaimed productions in Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, Berlin, Metropolitan Opera, Paris, Madrid, Seattle, and again many more. Above all, though, he commands such respect from the orchestras and achieves such success and popularity with the public, that he is always asked to return and conducts periodically the most celebrated orchestras and opera ensembles, be it the Berliner Philharmoniker, New York Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw, Metropolitan Opera or Glyndebourne, to name a few. By the same token, Bělohlávek’s discography does not amaze just by its quantity, but above all by its consistent quality which led to many major awards worldwide. There is also a clear link that connects his four decades of conducting: systematic promotion of Czech music. If it was not for Bělohlávek’s unceasing enthusiasm and belief in introducing the works of, above all, Bohuslav Martinů, we would have hardly had the privilege of knowing so much of the huge and wonderful output of this major 20th century composer, whose name became so closely linked with Bělohlávek. And even well established composers like Dvořák, Smetana or Janáček, who had been known around the world primarily for often just a fragment of their oeuvres, had their many unjustly neglected works exposed by Bělohlávek, alongside the works of lesser or even completely and unjustly unknown Czech composers like, for instance, Suk, Ostrčil, Foerster, Sommer, Slavický and others. When the recording company Naxos was summing up Jiří Bĕlohlávek’s qualities, it noted that his “conducting style is undemonstrative and is at all times dedicated to realising the composer’s intentions with the minimum of idiosyncratic interpretative intervention.
He is able to generate considerable intensity in performance, especially in that of large-scale choral works, such as Dvořák’s Stabat Mater…Also notable are his powerful interpretations of major Romantic and late-Romantic composers, such as Brahms and Mahler. Bĕlohlávek has recorded extensively for the Czech labels Supraphon and Panton, and for the British label Chandos. His most outstanding recordings are those in which he leads the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, where the high calibre of orchestral execution and Bĕlohlávek’s deep musicianship result in performances of exceptional quality.” There could hardly be a more desirable teaming up than that of Bĕlohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, of which he became Chief Conductor in 2006. The sheer professionalism and unique interpretative virtues of both find ideal realisation on the BBC Radio as much as in concerts, culminating each summer at the PROMS.
Radio orchestras get unique exposure on the air and they cover far wider repertoire than concert ones, which simply do not have the same platform. The BBC SO will excel under Bĕlohlávek in championing contemporary music, introducing lesser known works from the past and perfecting performances of “mainstream” classical music – no doubt featuring a few Slavonic gems, be it those already known to many, or those that Bĕlohlávek has been striving to introduce throughout his career, and not just in the “West”: much of the 20th Century East-European music was disallowed in its homeland by the former political regimes and Bĕlohlávek had to fight even there for the music of Martinů, the most reluctant Czech émigré. How fortunate there are no more restrictions, and the BBC can instead not just programme, but also record so much that we can look forward to! Read more on Last.fm. User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply..
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