2020 Prague Spring – A Year of Celebrations

A Special Opening

The Berlin Philharmonic has accepted an invitation to the Prague Spring Festival, and under its new chief conductor Kirill Petrenko, the orchestra will break with tradition by opening the festival on 7 May (7/5), a date that symbolically commemorates the festival’s 75th anniversary. Singing Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder will be one of today’s most sought-after mezzo-sopranos, Elisabeth Kulman, and the outstanding German soprano Christiane Karg will sing the solo part in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.

A Tribute to Bedřich Smetana

Smetana’s Má vlast, an emblematic work for the Prague Spring Festival, will be heard in accordance with tradition on 12 May played by the Czech Philharmonic under the baton of its chief conductor Semyon Bychkov. For the occasion of the 75th anniversary, joining with the orchestra will be laureates of the Prague Spring International Music Festival and students from London’s Royal Academy of Music.

Birthday Concert

A gala birthday concert on 19 May will bring together domestic and foreign soloists who share a long-term relationship with the festival and who have appeared at festival events during various phases of their artistic careers. The Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, for example, will play Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, a composition that is now hugely famous. Kremer played it at Prague Spring in 1979 when it was a new work. The mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink will commemorate her fifteen festival appearances and the pianist Garrick Ohlsson his total of twenty-one. Stars from abroad will also be represented by the pianist Yulianna Avdeeva and the trombonist Christian Lindberg. On a varied programme, they will present compositions referencing past visits to Prague. Among the Czech artists the audience can look forward to are mezzo-soprano Dagmar Pecková, the horn player Radek Baborák, the organist Pavel Svoboda, and the Pražák Quartet. There will be more than just recollections, however; the evening also promises some surprising combinations, in which the artists may be appearing for the very first time.

Beethoven 250

In the year that the whole world is celebrating the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth, the music of the Bonn native will be found throughout the festival’s dramaturgy and will be heard in a wide variety of contexts.

On 17 May the BBC Symphony Orchestra and its chief conductor Sakari Oramo will perform Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony alongside Stravinsky’s neoclassical Violin Concerto and Turbulent Landscapes by the contemporary composer Thea Musgrave.

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields will perform Beethoven’s Second Symphony on 21 May with the American pianist Murray Perahia as the conductor and soloist in Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto.

Perhaps the most provocative context will come with the programme of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra with its chief conductor Alexander Liebreich. The concert on 15 May subtitled Christ and Antichrist will feature Beethoven’s oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives alongside Richard Strauss’s symphonic poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra, inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s book.

The Canadian conductor Peter Oundjian will make a guest appearance with the Prague Symphony Orchestra in a daring combination of Beethoven’s Third Symphony (“Eroica”) with a Saxophone Concerto by the American contemporary composer John Adams. Playing the solo part at the concert on 25 May will be the American Patrick Posey, a long-time collaborator with Adams.

We wanted to present the festival public with music of Viennese Classicism in an authentic performance, and the clear choice was the Vienna Symphony Orchestra together with the conductor Philippe Herreweghe, a legend of informed interpretation of early music, and the violinist Isabelle Faust. On 31 May they will perform Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, then the second half of the programme will feature Schubert’s Symphony No. 4 in C minor.

Beethoven’s chamber music will be heard primarily during the Chamber Music Weekend (22–24 May), with performances by top foreign ensembles and wonderful domestic performers. There will be all-Beethoven programmes by the famed Takács Quartet and by the violinist James Ehnes accompanied by the pianist Andrew Armstrong.

Offering an interesting perspective on Beethoven’s last sonatas will be a recital by the 2020 Prague Spring artist-in-residence Sir András Schiff on 1 June in Dvořák Hall at the Rudolfinum.

The festival will return to the tradition of concluding with Beethoven’s monumental Symphony No. 9 with Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”. At the helm of the Czech Philharmonic will be Cornelius Meister – a brilliant German conducting talent whose star is rising sharply. The quartet of vocalists also promises a special performance – soprano Miah Persson, mezzo-soprano Lucie Hilscherová, tenor Norbert Ernst, and bass Franz-Josef Selig. The choral part has been entrusted to the Prague Philharmonic Choir led by Lukáš Vasilek. Preceding Beethoven’s Ninth will be a performance of the composition Verwandlung 6, perhaps the best known work by the German contemporary composer Wolfgang Rihm.

Artist-in-Residence

For decades, the pianist and conductor Sir András Schiff has been one of the most prominent figures of the world of classical music. He will be the artist-in-residence for the year’s Prague Spring. He will present himself as a soloist with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic (30 May), in a recital (1 June), and in a chamber music concert with the Panocha Quartet (3 June).

The Independent, a British daily newspaper, characterised him very accurately after his Brahms recital at London’s prestigious Wigmore Hall: “Schiff himself has now reached a serene plateau in life where he no longer needs to prove anything; for him each recital is simply a chance to revisit often-played works, and to hold them up to the light in ways which can gently surprise.

Foreign Stars

In past years, the famed Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra shined in a unique project called The Beethoven Journey, in the course of which they performed Beethoven’s complete piano concertos over four seasons. The Prague Spring Festival played a major role in this large-scale project, because most of the material was recorded at festival concerts. Encouraged by the extraordinary response to that project, they are now bringing a new project called Mozart Momentum 1785/1786. Over several years, they will be presenting Mozart’s masterpieces to the public with an emphasis on the piano concerto genre, for the development of which Mozart played a major role. The concerts on 26 and 27 May will be an important part of this project.

The world famous Saint Petersburg Philharmonic and Yuri Temirkanov are returning to the Prague Spring Festival after a five-year absence, and like at its last guest appearance, it is bringing the repertoire with which it is most closely associated – the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. The soloist in a piano concerto by Brahms will be the artist-in-residence for this year’s festival, Sir András Schiff. The performance will be on 30 May at Smetana Hall in the Municipal House.

A striking talent, a striking figure, and striking playing. The American cellist Alisa Weilerstein is intimately familiar to the Czech public – she won our hearts with a masterful performance of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with the Czech Philharmonic under the baton of Jiří Bělohlávek. Incidentally, we can still bring to mind that extraordinary conjuncture of talent because of the award-winning recording on the Decca label. “She plays with such certainty, without a single mistake, and her temperament and energy are amazing,” declared Jiří Bělohlávek after making the recording. She will be putting all of those qualities on display at the recital now awaiting her at the Prague Spring Festival – on 23 May in a single evening, she will play the complete Six Suites for Solo Cello by J. S. Bach. There are few cellists with the concentration and endurance to bring off this demanding task. After all, for three hours she will be alone on stage with her cello, a beautiful instrument by the Venetian master Domenico Montagnana from the year 1723.

Adam Plachetka’s Winterreise

The baritone Adam Plachetka is appearing at Prague Spring on 25 May in a capacity for which he is less well known to the Czech public. For his jubilee tenth festival performance, the dramaturgy will be unique – Plachetka will be on the concert stage performing Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, of which he made a studio recording in the autumn of 2019. Winterreise is a cycle that everyone wants to sing. Especially those with low voices. And I’ve been looking for the right chance to sing it for a long time,” says Plachetka. Accompanying him on the recording and in the concert is the pianist Gary Matthewman, a leading British accompanist of the Lieder repertoire, who is a regular guest at London’s Wigmore Hall, Vienna’s Musikverein, and New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Rediscovery of Britten’s Cadenza

Two important young artists will be joining forces for a concert on 29 May – the harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani and the conductor Jiří Rožeň leading the Prague Philharmonia. “Esfahani is a phenomenal musician who has been able to return the harpsichord to the centre of attention in an international context as a solo instrument,” says the festival dramaturge Josef Třeštík. Esfahani has an affinity for Czech culture – Zuzana Růžičková was his mentor for four years. “Like her, Mahan also feels a closeness to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and of the English virginalists. But he also feels at home in the most demanding contemporary music, which many composers write especially for him,” says Třeštík. Abroad, he has often taken part in performing the music of Czech composers. Josef Třeštík calls Jiří Rožeň “one of the most talented Czech conductors of his generation, who has launched an exceptionally promising international career before the age of thirty.” The festival public still has a vivid memory of his concert at Prague Spring Debut in 2016.

Their joint festival concert will present a combination of music by British and central European composers. “The programme will open with the Suite on English Folk Tunes, a late work by Benjamin Britten that is little known in this country. Next comes Haydn’s Harpsichord Concerto, which Esfahani will play with a cadenza written for the concerto by Britten for concerts in 1943–1944 for the harpsichordist Lucille Wallace. It was long thought to be lost. Its rediscovery will lend this concert the importance of an historical event,” explains Třeštík. The second half of the evening opens with a ‘tour de force’ of the harpsichord literature, the Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings by the contemporary English composer Michael Nyman, whose popularity in this country is based mainly on his music for Peter Greenaway’s films. “The programme will then conclude with the Toccata e due canzoni by Bohuslav Martinů, a composition with many repetitive structures that may be a bit reminiscent of Nyman’s minimalistic style,” says Třeštík.

Prague Spring Debut

On 22 May, Prague Spring Debut will present another promising young Czech conductor who has been given the opportunity to demonstrate his artistry side by side with the best. Robert Kružík has earned an excellent reputation as a regular guest conductor of the Brno Philharmonic and as a conductor at the Janáček Opera in Brno and the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre in Ostrava, where he has mastered a broad repertoire. He has yet to make his Prague debut, however. “I’m really glad Prague Spring has brought Robert Kružík together with perhaps the greatest trombonist of all time, Christian Lindberg, who is responsible for expanding the repertoire of his instrument like no one else,” emphasises the dramaturge Josef Třeštík.

Young Artists

Matinee concerts provide an opportunity for the rising generation of Czech performers. This season, it will be the seventeen-year-old violinist Eduard Kollert (23 May) and the pianist Jan Čmejla (24 May), this year’s winner of the Concertino Praga radio competition. At his matinee on 16 May, the outstanding Czech percussionist Ladislav Bilan Jr. will present contemporary music for marimba and other instruments.

On 16 May, the flutist Chaeyeon You (*2001), a laureate of the Prague Spring International Music Competition, will present a concert with a varied programme ranging from the Baroque to the present. She will be appearing not only as a soloist, but also in a chamber ensemble alongside laureates from past Prague Spring Competitions – the harpsichordist Monika Knoblochová and the clarinettist Anna Paulová, who will later be appearing at a matinee concert of her own.

The oboist Martin Daněk, also a winner of the 2019 Prague Spring International Music Competition and at present an oboist with the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, has prepared a chamber music concert in cooperation with the festival dramaturge combining works by Baroque masters with the music of Henri Dutilleux. His concert on 21 May will be at St Agnes’s Convent.

Early Music

Lovers of the authentic interpretation of early music can look forward to two magnificent concerts of music for voices and instrumental ensembles.

The performance by the Freiburger Barockorchester and the Belgian vocal group Vox Luminis is subtitled The Ascension of Christ. The dramaturgically self-contained concert on 28 May will be framed by works by J. S. Bach – the cantata Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein and the Ascension Oratorio. Also to be heard are Telemann’s cantata Ich fahre auf zu meinem Vater and the violin sonata The Resurrection of Christ by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, a native of northern Bohemia.

The motto of the vocal ensemble Vox Luminis is “Approach the Light through the Voice”. It already has 13 CDs to its credit, for which it has earned many prestigious awards, including two from the journal Gramophone and a 2018 BBC Music Magazine Award. The Freiburger Barockorchester enjoys a worldwide reputation in the field of informed interpretation of early music. The ensemble is characterised by its high demands on interpretation, immensely joyful playing, and constant openness to as yet unknown music or daring performances of well known pieces.

For fifteen years, the ensembles Collegium 1704 and Collegium Vocale 1704 have been among the top Czech groups in the field of early music. The impulse for their creation was collaboration with the Prague Spring Festival, for which their artistic director prepared a performance of Bach’s monumental B minor Mass.

In their repertoire we find major works of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and neglected works by Czech masters, and in particular by Jan Dismas Zelenka. His music will also be heard at their Prague Spring concert. “Enormously emotional and dramatic musical language supported by inventive instrumentation and vocal virtuosity will show this Czech musical genius in new colours,” declares Václav Luks about Zelenka’s Mass 1724, which will be heard at their Prague Spring concert. It was not composed as a whole. Instead, it consists of individual Mass movements that were composed in ca. 1724. “Zelenka’s father died that year, and it seems that the composer was deeply affected by that event,” says Václav Luks, explaining the circumstances of the music’s composition. “It seems to me that reconstructing an imaginary Mass presenting this evocative music under a single arch is a unique opportunity to introduce this music to today’s public,” Luks explains. On the first half of the programme is Handel’s musical setting of Psalm 110, Dixit Dominus, which is one of the first compositions in which the twenty-two-year-old composer fully developed his contrapuntal artistry while also taking wonderful advantage of the excitingly dramatic text.

New Music

The 2020 Prague Spring Festival is presenting three extraordinary ensembles focusing on the interpretation of contemporary music. Appearing at the festival for the first time is Germany’s legendary Ensemble Modern (2 June), which has set the highest standards for the interpretation of this genre for four decades, and which has considerable influence over the composers of today. It will be presenting one of the masterpieces by the French composer Gérard Grisey, the founder and most important representative of the movement known as Spectral Music. Without realising that he was composing his last work, he created in it a monumental artistic epitaph. In his Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold), he set texts of four different cultures from around the world that deal with the theme of death from various perspectives.

The same performing forces are required by a new work commissioned by the festival from Jiří Kadeřábek, a young composer who has enjoyed considerable international success and is known to the Prague audience thanks to his orchestral concerts with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Prague Spring 2012) or in the subscription series of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra. The National Theatre in Prague successfully produced his opera Žádný člověk (No Man), which tells the story of Otakar Švec, the sculptor who created Prague’s infamous Stalin Monument. Kadeřábek’s Prague Spring premiere is thus highly anticipated. “Nothing can be said for certain while the composition is still in the works,” the composer remarks enigmatically. “I always have some creative starting points of course, but those can prove to be irrelevant in the end, and so I prefer to keep them to myself. The diligent fulfilment of some sort of ‘statement’ would make for terribly boring creativity!” Kadeřábek is not the type to rely on tried-and-tested concepts, and he regards every composition as an opportunity to explore uncharted territory. We have much to look forward to!

There are not many ensembles in this country today that can be compared with the Brno Contemporary Orchestra (20 May), an ensemble from Moravia that cultivates the world’s most demanding repertoire and regularly commissions works from Czech composers. This orchestra is also making its first appearance at Prague Spring. The programme will present world premieres of foreign works (Pascal Dusapin, Olga Neuwirth, Erkki-Sven Tüür) and one Czech premiere.

A personal affinity for the works of Erkki-Sven Tüür is openly admitted by the Czech composer Jan Ryant Dřízal, who spent a part of his studies in Estonia. He has written a new work for the BCO, commissioned by the Prague Spring and titled Zběsilost v srdci (Wild at Heart). “The title of the composition occurred to me in the aftermath of a terribly lucid dream, in which I experienced sensations of animalistic possession, even rapture,” the author explains. “But the whole thing was suffused with positive energy, which gave me the primary impetus to complete the whole work. The ecstatic character of the composition and its conception as a magic ritual are the two central notions of my composition. I borrowed the name from the famous film by David Lynch, whose expression and tempo subconsciously resonates with my compositional strategy.

Bringing another type of contemporary music on 27 May is Roomful of Teeth – an American vocal ensemble of extraordinary vocal and musical qualities, for which a very special, attractive repertoire has been created by a circle of composers whose music resonates with the ensemble’s aesthetic. The ensemble develops the expressive potential of the human voice and expands its limits through the study of vocal techniques with masters of the vocal traditions of all parts of the world: from Tuvan throat singing and Korean, Georgian, and Indian vocal culture to belting and death-metal vocalisation. “Darwin believed that music and speech developed in part out of people mimicking natural sounds. Roomful of Teeth, you might say, is another step in that evolution,” remarks Burkhard Bilger in a detailed article about the musicians printed in the New Yorker. Their breadth of vocal expression inspires collaborating composers to create utterly unique new works.

One of the leading figures in ensemble is the composer and vocalist Caroline Shaw, whose Partita for 8 Voices won the Pulitzer Prize. Their 2012 debut album earned the ensemble a Grammy the following year.