Pre-Concert Talk has been canceled.
The turn of the 1920s and ’30s – that “final calm” and time of “dark premonitions” as Stefan Zweig wrote in his memoirs The World of Yesterday – was characterised in Europe by musical ferment, into which those attending the concert will be immersed by a revelatory survey programme. At that time, the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, then living in France, composed his Symphony of Psalms on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Boston Symphony Orchestra on a commission from Serge Koussevitzky. The work has been performed frequently and is regarded as one of the pivotal works of the 20th century. The Jewish composer Hans Krása, influenced by the German environment of Prague’s cultural life, wrote the cantata Die Erde ist des Herrn… (The Earth is the Lord’s), which is also based on psalms and is similar in may ways to the Symphony of Psalms, but is far less well known. The Austrian composer Alexander Zemlinsky, a pupil of Mahler and Krása’s teacher, who spent 16 years at the helm of the orchestra of the New German Theatre in Prague, had returned to Vienna, and was working on his Sinfonietta, which was supposed to secure him more promotion from his publisher. “The whole project was created in close cooperation with Ilan Volkov, an extraordinary conductor with an enormously broad repertoire, who has long been devoting himself to the music of composers imprisoned at the Theresienstadt ghetto,” says the festival dramaturge Josef Třeštík. The former chief conductor and still principal guest conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, with which he has made appearances at the Prague Spring Festival in 2003 and 2007, says that for him, Prague was a mysterious and legendary place”, which he first visited with his parents in 1989. “It was an unforgettable trip. Later on I was privileged to conduct there several times with fantastic audiences and halls.” This time, Volkov will lead the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra and in two compositions (Stravinsky and Krása) the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno as well. For Krása’s cantata, he has also invited a quartet of top Czech soloists.
Alexander Zemlinsky (1871–1942) decided to compose his Sinfonietta Op. 23 for purely pragmatic reasons. When he complained to his publisher that it was paying little attention to promoting his music, the answer he got was that the Zemlinsky catalogue was short on purely symphonic compositions of a shorter length that would be easier to promote than his other works. Before long, Zemlinsky sent his publisher the Sinfonietta, a late-romantic composition that oscillated stylistically between Mahler and early Schoenberg, which he completed in 1934. Although by this time he had been settled in Vienna for several years, the work was first heard at his previous place of employment, Prague, on 19 February 1935 under the baton of Heinrich Jalowetz. The composer himself then conducted the work in Vienna, Paris, Barcelona, and Lausanne. During the 1940/1941 season Dimitri Mitropoulos led the American premiere with the New York Philharmonic. It is being heard at the Prague Spring Festival for the first time.
“This symphony, composed to the glory of GOD, is dedicated to the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of its existence.” That is the dedication on the title page of the score of the Symphony of Psalms, which Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) composed in 1930. He was not the only composer commissioned by his friend and colleague Serge Koussevitzky to write a new composition on the occasion of the celebration of half a century of existence of what was the most famous American orchestra at the time, of which Koussevitzky was then the conductor. Besides Stravinsky, works were also commissioned from Paul Hindemith (Concert Music for Strings and Brass), Sergei Prokofiev (Symphony No. 4), and Arthur Honegger (Symphony No. 1).
Characteristically, Stravinsky interpreted the publisher’s suggestion that he write “something popular” in his own way: he rejected the possibility of “adapting to the understanding of the people”; instead, interpreting “popular” as “something universally admired”, he chose to create a musical setting of Psalm 150, which he used in the pivotal third movement (in the previous movements he used verses from Psalms 38 and 39). In this way, he also got to include chorus, which had not been part of the original commission, and he orchestrated the work for unusual forces. In an effort to achieve an archaic sound, he omitted the “modern-sounding” clarinets and also the violins and violas. The Symphony of Psalms is dominated by fugal counterpoint like a reminiscence of the sacred music of the High Renaissance and Baroque, and the influence of the music of the Orthodox Church can be heard in it as well. A figurative description of the three movements of the Symphony of Psalms might look something like this: “a prayer for help”, “a song of hope”, and “a song of praise”, as they were characterised by the Russian musicologist Mikhail Druskin. Paradoxically, the world premiere did not take place in Boston, but rather in Brussels on 13 December 1930 with the local Philharmonic Society under the baton of Ernest Ansermet; the Boston performance conducted by Koussevitzky took place six days later.
Ilan Volkov spent several years as an assistant with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. From 2003 he led the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and from 2009 he served as its principal guest conductor. From 2011 to 2014 he was the music director and chief conductor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. He has premiered compositions by many internationally famous composers including Jonathan Harvey, Hans Abrahamsen, Unsuk Chin, and Mark-Anthony Turnage.
His voracious interest in experiments in classical music, free improvisation, electronics, folk music, world music, or new hip hop led him in 2011 to the founding of the festival Tectonics, which gradually expanded from Reykjavík to various cities around the world (Adelaide, Oslo, New York, Tel Aviv, London, Krakow, Athens). Today, it represents one of the world’s most important platforms for contemporary music. Through Tectonics, Volkov has shown himself to be an innovative curator who not only brings to the festival key figures of contemporary music (with all of their overlaps into other artistic idioms), but also stimulates the creation of new projects and collaborations. Volkov’s extensive discography includes projects for the British label Hyperion, the standouts amongst them being two albums with ballets by Igor Stravinsky (Jeu de cartes, Agon, Orpheus, Le baiser de la fée, and Scènes de ballet), Britten’s complete music for piano and orchestra (the recording with Steven Osborne was awarded a prize by Gramophone) and Liszt’s Three Funeral Odes with the BBC Scottish, issued in the composer’s jubilee year. Volkov’s CD for the company NMC with music by Jonathan Harvey (Body Mandala) won a Gramophone prize (2008), and Harvey’s Speakings on the Aeon label won the prestigious Monaco Prize and the Prix Caecilia de l’Union de la Presse Musicale Belge (2011).
The Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra is one of today’s most important Czech orchestras. Since the 2018/19 season, its chief conductor and artistic director has been the German conductor Alexander Liebreich. In recent years, the orchestra has collaborated with leading Czech and foreign conductors (Tomáš Netopil, Jakub Hrůša, Stephan Asbury, John Axelrod, Ion Marin, Michał Nesterowicz, and Wayne Marshall) and soloists (Krystian Zimerman, Alban Gerhardt, Steven Isserlis, Christian Lindberg, Renée Fleming, and Jonas Kaufmann). The Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra regularly commissions and performs music by leading contemporary Czech composers such as Pavel Zemek Novák, Jan Ryant Dřízal, Miroslav Srnka, and Jiří Kadeřábek. Among the many recordings made by the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra in recent years have been such important projects as a Janáček trilogy with the conductor Tomáš Netopil, the first complete cycle of recordings of the eight symphonies of Miloslav Kabeláč, and the complete piano concertos of Bohuslav Martinů.