Classicism and Neo-Classicism – this could conceivably be the subtitle of a concert combining Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major and works by two classics of the 20th century, Francis Poulenc and Igor Stravinsky, the 50th anniversary of whose death occurs in the spring of 2021. “We will be commemorating his music in various contexts throughout the festival,” says festival Director, Roman Bělor. This programme will see the joint collaboration of the Prague Spring’s Artist-in-Residence, German clarinetist and composer Jörg Widmann, one of the Czech Republic’s principal orchestras, the PKF-Prague Philharmonia, and its Chief Conductor Emmanuel Villaume. “Mozart’s music greatly influenced the two other works on the programme,” says Villaume. “With simplicity and grace, his Clarinet Concerto touches the human soul directly, and deeply. It is his last concerto and the only one he composed for his favourite wind instrument. At the risk of hyperbole, I would state that it is one of the most miraculous productions of the human genius,” he adds. “To be able to play music in Prague by one of the “saints of the city” is something quite exceptional for me,” Jörg Widmann confides.
The ballet in two tableaux Apollon musagète (Apollo, Leader of the Muses) was created in 1928 as a commission from American patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge for a music festival organised by the Library of Congress in Washington. In this work Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) developed his artistic sensibility in an unexpected way when he directed attention towards the revival of a hitherto neglected melodic principle through pure Neo-Classical stylisation. Instrumental melody did not conform to the articulation of speech, nor the rhythm of breathing; his original melodic invention in monothematic variations betrays an exceptional sense of the way material can be remoulded, comparable perhaps only with Mozart. “Apollo was my largest single step towards a long-line polyphonic style,” Stravinsky noted in his Dialogues with Robert Craft. Earlier in his career he had stated the following: “… I was so much attracted by the idea of writing music in which everything should revolve about the melodic principle. And then the pleasure of immersing oneself in the multi-sonorous euphony of strings and making it penetrate even the furthest fibres of the polyphonic web.” (Chronicle of My Life)
Taken from Greek mythology, the story of the ballet is allegorical: Apollo, the leader of the Muses, presents each of them with one of the arts. Stravinsky chose the three Muses that were most important for music and choreographic art: Calliope, who received a stylus and writing tablet from Apollo as the embodiment of epic poetry; Polyhymnia, with her finger on her lips, representing pantomime; and Terpsichore, personifying both poetic rhythm and expressive movement, who reveals the eloquence of dance to the people and thus assumes a place of honour next to Apollo. The first tableau depicts the birth of Apollo. After a series of allegorical dances, arranged in the traditional style of the classical ballet (pas d’action, pas de deux, variation and coda), comes the final Apotheosis: Apollo leads the Muses, with Terpsichore out in front, to Mount Parnassus, their eternal home. Although the theme of the ballet is a celebration of dance, Stravinsky’s work primarily became a fixture on the concert platform after its American and European premieres in 1928 (27 April and 12 June respectively). “Apollon musagète is a musical tour de force ,” says Villaume. “Although clearly enveloped by its references to French Baroque and classical ballet music, it evokes a strange and magical feeling of relevant but displaced modernity.”
Like the Clarinet Quintet in A major K 581, which Jörg Widmann will perform on 22 May during his residency at the Prague Spring, Clarinet Concerto in A major KV 622 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) quickly became a fundamental and essential part of the clarinet repertoire, despite the fact that it is one of the very first concertos for this instrument and it’s even conceivable that it was intended for the basset horn (possibly also for the basset clarinet). It was written at the request of Mozart’s friend, clarinetist Anton Stadler, who premiered the concerto in Prague on 16 October 1791. This well-known Classical work, with its dash of Romanticism, is written for an instrument Mozart loved best of all. In its intimacy gently anticipating Romantic elements in the Adagio, and its endearing playfulness and well concealed inner drama in the outer movements, the piece continues to represent the acid test for true masters of this instrument.
When Roger Désormière (1898-1963) conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the highly acclaimed premiere of Poulenc’s Sinfonietta in London in 1948, its graceful, enchanting French music filled with dance rhythms strengthened his international reputation to an even greater extent and also led to the huge success of the composer’s tour of the United States. Sinfonietta is the only symphonic work that Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), a member of the famous Parisian group Les Six, produced in his career – and this only at the request of friends after considerable persuasion on their part. The work has four movements: Allegro con fuoco, Molto vivace, Andante cantabile and Très vite et très gai. The music strongly conveys joyful temperament, French charm and Poulenc’s overarching melodic invention, which Maurice Ravel had admired in the promising composer early on. Not even Poulenc could ever be attributed with one-sided frivolity. Like Mozart, with whom he has much in common, he was well able to conceal the inner drama, which only rises fiendishly to the surface once in a while, as in the aggressive moments of the Sinfonietta’s introductory Allegro and in the close of the scherzo, and it also pervades the wistful lines of the Adagio. “Even though Poulenc’s Sinfonietta emerged as a tribute to Mozart and Haydn, it casts its eye towards Stravinsky’s Neo-Classical style,” says Emmanuel Villaume, conductor for the evening. “It resists categorisation. The closest work to a symphony that Poulenc wrote, it is infused with verve, élan and at times, even irreverent wit. It contains some of the most beautiful symphonic colours and melodies of a maverick composer beloved for his singular and affable voice. It is a pure jewel of joyous, genial and juvenile generosity,” he adds.
In France Poulenc’s solitary symphonic work was panned by the critics, ostensibly for its banal melodies, eclectic harmonies, and the composer’s striking inability to handle the symphonic form. Yet the most important thing for Poulenc had always been the reception of his music by his friends and by the audience for whom he composed. And this recognition was just as fervent at home in France as beyond its borders. For this reason he was quick to respond to his critics: “Don’t analyse my music – love it!”
Emmanuel Villaume has been Chief Conductor and Music Director of the PKF-Prague Philharmonia since the 2015/2016 season, and in the autumn of 2020 he began his eighth season as Music Director of the Dallas Opera. Together with the German soprano Diana Damrau he won the prestigious 2017 ECHO Klassik award in the opera album category for a recording of Meyerbeer arias, and in December of that year he conducted Puccini’s Tosca at New York’s Metropolitan Opera as part of the popular series The Met: Live in HD, which is broadcast to more than 2,000 theatres and cinemas in 73 countries.
He also works regularly with London’s Covent Garden, the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, the Deutsche Oper Berlin and Opéra Bastille in Paris. On the orchestral platform he headed the Slovak Philharmonic as its Chief Conductor from 2009 to 2016 and has moreover worked with some of the world’s finest ensembles, such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony and Orchestre de Paris. As his Prague Spring programme reveals, he is fond of conducting less frequently performed works as well. The Chicago Sun-Times wrote in this regard: “Villaume has an almost unique ability to give undervalued works their musical due and move them up several notches in the listeners’ estimation.” He is a sought-after partner of the biggest names on the current opera scene, for instance Diana Damrau, Angela Gheorghiu, Bryan Hymel and Anna Netrebko, with whom he previously undertook a successful tour of Europe performing Tchaikovsky’s opera Iolanta; more recently, he recorded a CD for Deutsche Grammophon together with the PKF and French tenor Benjamin Bernheim. Villaume is a graduate of the Strasbourg Conservatoire and the Sorbonne in Paris, where he obtained degrees in literature, philosophy and musicology. He holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Indianapolis.
“It’s a great honour to be asked to assume the role of Artist-in-Residence at the Prague Spring. I’m delighted to accept it,” says German clarinetist and composer Jörg Widmann. “My work has taken me to virtually all the world’s music centres, but never to Prague, the city coveted by all those who love literature and music.” Widmann’s residency will include three concerts highlighting favourite composers who were key to his composition work, and featuring examples of his own music.
During the Chamber Music Weekend he will appear at St Agnes’ Convent, first with the superb Schumann Quartet (22 May), then in a recital with Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin (23 May). His residency will culminate in a performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major with the PKF-Prague Philharmonia headed by its Chief Conductor Emmanuel Villaume (31 May). He will also be giving a master class as part of his residency (30 May).
Born in Munich, Widmann’s route to composition led via his clarinet. He grew up in a musical family and his earliest memories are of his parents’ home music-making and a trip to the opera, where he heard Der Freischütz. To this day Weber is an absolute favourite of his, as attested by his Prague Spring concert with Denis Kozhukhin, and the album released in 2020 on the dynamic Alpha Classics label dedicated to this early Romantic.
Widmann began to play the clarinet at the age of seven, and as soon as he had managed to coax a few notes from the instrument, he began to improvise. Widmann himself stated that his desire to compose was born of the sorrow he felt for these forgotten improvisations. His memory wasn’t serving him well enough, so he finally got himself some manuscript paper.
In addition to his clarinet studies in Munich and later in New York at the prestigious Juilliard School, he sought consultation in his compositional endeavours from such heavyweights as Hans Werner Henze, Wolfgang Rihm and Heiner Goebbels. He had always admired Helmut Lachenmann and later met Pierre Boulez as well. Unlike his contemporaries, who had posters of David Bowie and Michael Jackson in their rooms, young Jörg had Pierre Boulez on his wall. And while Germany’s young generation cultivated and embraced the emerging techno scene wholeheartedly in the early Nineties, 20-year-old Widmann was diligently composing and, inspired by this pulsating rhythmic genre, he came up with the piece 180 beats per minute. He apparently never attended any techno gigs; what was far more important for him was the unusually rich and colourful musical history of the genre to which he dedicated his life and his music. His works reflect an intricate web of characteristic gestures, intimated, vague quotations, respectful nods to the past, and sly references ranging from Bach to his own contemporaries. “Jörg Widmann is very much a child of our time. Everything is accessible, and he takes in these influences. So his music can be chaotic when you first hear it, it’s complex, it can be very melodic, it can even be kitschy sometimes. But it’s done with a purpose.”
These were the words pronounced by Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Möst when he conducted Widmann’s Trauermarsch in Carnegie Hall in 2009, expressing the reasons for the artist’s renown as a composer. Now forty-seven, Widmann has seen his music appearing regularly on the concert programmes of traditional symphony orchestras over the last few years – the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and many others. The Czech Philharmonic has performed his work as well. We will frequently also find his name on programmes for concerts given by ensembles specialising in contemporary music, such as Ensemble Intercontemporain and Klangforum Wien, to mention two high-profile chamber orchestras. He has published more than 100 of his compositions, including twenty orchestral works, around ten instrumental concertos, and a full-length opera, Babylon.
If there’s a simple explanation for Widmann’s openness to influences from the past – take his Con brio, for instance, which quite clearly manifests the ethos of Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies – it seems to lie with his parallel stellar career as a clarinetist. He has performed chamber music with the likes of András Schiff, Daniel Barenboim and Mitsuko Uchida. As a soloist he has appeared with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Orchestre National de France, Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich and the Vienna Philharmonic. Moreover, many composers have written works expressly for him, such as his mentor and teacher Wolfgang Rihm, Mark Andre, or Czech composer and member of the Prague Spring Artistic Board, Miroslav Srnka.
“How does one cope creatively with the pressure of that long classical tradition?” asks The Guardian. “I’m humble,” he states with an awkward grin. “As a player, I’m in touch with these masterworks every day. I love them! So I write pieces about my love.”
As one might surmise from his Prague Spring concerts, the essence of Widmann’s individuality is chiefly rooted in his regard for the legacy of the Classical and Romantic composers. The fervour and passion with which he speaks of the music of Weber, Mendelssohn, Schumann or Mahler is infectious. His profound knowledge of the Classical repertoire is inspirational. The expression of humility conveyed to The Guardian is not exaggerated: He received requests to write a clarinet quintet on many occasions, but he long declined the offers – he regards Mozart’s and Brahms’s quintets as works of genius and he felt he should first mature as a composer before embarking upon a piece for the same instrumental ensemble. His love for the German Romantics is also reflected in the titles of his works – the trilogy for orchestra Lied, Chor and Messe, Trauermarsch for piano and orchestra, which he wrote for pianist Yefim Bronfman, or Teufel Amor [Devil Cupid], a large-scale orchestral piece, inspired by a fragment of Schiller’s poem of the same name, which reads: “Sweet Amor, remain in melodic flight”. Widmann interprets the line of verse by stating that, in love, as in music, we try to capture something indefinable, something that goes beyond us and brings us to wonderment and also to despair. Such is the mystery of life and art.
The PKF – Prague Philharmonia was founded in 1994 on the initiative of conductor Jiří Bělohlávek under the original name Prague Chamber Philharmonia. Today it is one of the most recognised orchestras, not only among Czech but also world ensembles. The orchestra’s key repertoire is rooted in Viennese Classicism, complemented with works from the Romantic period and the 20th century. Where the Czech environment is concerned, the PKF has paid particular attention over the years to the music of Bohuslav Martinů. The orchestra also focuses on pieces by contemporary composers, from whom it regularly commissions new works.
The ensemble is committed to supporting young musicians, inviting talented players to its Orchestral Academy. The PKF – Prague Philharmonia is a familiar guest at international music festivals (BBC Proms, MITO Settembre Musica) and has appeared in leading concert venues such as the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, Suntory Hall in Tokyo, the Berlin Philharmonic Hall, and Gasteig Munich. Over the period of its existence, the orchestra has recorded over 90 CDs released by prominent Czech and world music publishers, such as Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, Supraphon, EMI, Warner Classics and Harmonia Mundi. A number of them have been awarded important prizes, such as the RAC Canada Gold Disc (2000), the Harmony Award (2001), and a Diapason d’Or (2007). The CD Héroïque featuring tenor Bryan Hymel was nominated in 2016 for the International Opera Awards, and the album Bohemian Rhapsody, recorded for Sony Classical with trumpeter Gábor Boldoczki, winner of the Prague Spring International Music Competition, was nominated for the International Classical Music Award in 2018.