The much loved Czech Philharmonic Orchestra is heading to Symphony Hall. General manager Robert Hanc talks to Christopher Morley about the programme they’ve chosen to celebrate Czechoslovakia’s centenary and 25 years of the Czech Republic.
I doubt any orchestra in this country has ever had to undergo the risks faced by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in the past. The orchestra has a proud history, making symbolic statements against both its country’s Nazi and Soviet oppressors, but its general manager, Robert Hanc, feels it could have done more.
“I believe that the orchestra hasn’t always spoken out as much as it wished to. Things were very hard and one needed to be careful. When they were not, they were running a great risk. In February 1945, for example, one of the orchestra’s viola players (Zdenek Nemec) was murdered by the Gestapo for his review of Smetana’s Ma Vlast.
“One of the moments when they did seem to speak out – implicitly at least – was in 1941 when they were forced to perform in Hitler’s Germany (under Vaclav Talich). They chose to play Beethoven’s Egmont and Smetana’s Ma Vlast!”
Ma Vlast is an intensely patriotic cycle of six symphonic poems glorifying the history and landscape of Czechoslovakia.
“The Czech Philharmonic has always seen itself as a guardian and an ambassador of Czech culture, which may be why they had often felt that they needed to speak out,” Robert continues.
“As their conductor Rafael Kubelik once said, ‘I have left my native land, going in voluntary exile. The communists resumed where the Nazis had left. I have left in order not to have to collaborate on destroying our precious culture and humanity’,’’
Many of us of a certain age in the West have fond memories of the Supraphon record label, its bargain-price LPs bringing wonderful performances from the CPO onto our turntables.
“I think that the orchestra’s Supraphon recordings definitely are a factor in the affection with which the orchestra is held,” says Robert. “I am constantly surprised at how many people know these recordings. When I talk to festival directors, orchestra managers, concert hall administrators, and journalists, they will very often mention an older Supraphon recording and they will very often comment on its quality. The orchestra’s Supraphon recordings (be it with Ancerl, Kubelik, Neumann or Belohlavek) still seem to form a valuable part of the collection of every serious music lover.”
The CPO’s forthcoming Birmingham programme is an attractive one, but Nottingham will be hearing Elgar’s Enigma Variations, their only performance of the work on this tour. Could Robert tell me the reasoning behind this programming?
“We’re giving eight performances on this tour; six of them feature Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, to commemorate Czechoslovakia’s centenary and the first 25 years of the Czech Republic.
“Czechoslovakia declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 and, in 1993, it dissolved peacefully into what is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia. So, the fact that we are performing Dvorak’s New World Symphony is symbolic.
“We offered the promoters Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 as well as Elgar’s Enigma Variations. This was to commemorate the centenary, but also to express our affection for Great Britain: we have always been received very warmly here, in Basingstoke, Bristol, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham as well as other cities. We absolutely love playing here! Most promoters opted for Symphony No. 9, but we do play Elgar in Nottingham and then, immediately after the tour, at three concerts in Prague.
The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal guest conductor, Tomas Netopil, is on the touring podium, and when he comes to Birmingham next week he will be sure to step across Centenary Square in order to visit the city’s historic Town Hall.
Hearing from me that his great compatriot Antonin Dvorak conducted the premieres of his dramatic cantata The Spectre’s Bride and later his Requiem within those walls (Birmingham Triennial Festival commissions), he says:“I’ve never been there, but I really look forward to going to see it.’’
Tomas is also fascinated to learn that Edward Elgar, as iconic in this country as Dvorak is in the Czech Republic, played violin in the orchestra when Dvorak’s Sixth Symphony was performed in Worcester under its composer’s baton in 1884.
With Dvorak figuring largely in the CPO’s touring-programme – Symphony Hall will be hearing the composer’s Cello Concerto (hot-property Alisa Weilerstein the soloist) and New World Symphony, both products of Dvorak’s period as principal of the New York Conservatoire of Music – Elgar’s Enigma Variations will be a surprise element on the music-stands when the orchestra performs in Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall.
Is Elgar a major composer in the Czech Republic? “Not really,” says Tomas, “though the Enigma Variations is quite a popular piece, and I’ve conducted the Cello Concerto two or three times, it’s such a beautiful piece.”
As principal guest conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra together with all his other engagements Tomas admits to spending much of his time on the road.
So where is home? “My home is in Moravia, close to Brno, Janacek’s town, and where much of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus was filmed. It’s beautiful, and I need quiet!”.
- The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra performs Mozart and Dvorak at Symphony Hall on February 14 (7.30pm). Details on 0121 780 3333.