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ALEXANDER ZEMLINSKY (1871–1942), between 1911 and 1927 the music director of the opera ensemble of Prague’s New German Theatre, left an equally distinctive imprint in this city also in his capacities as a teache at the German Academy of Music, conductor of symphony concert productions, and respected composer. In 1927 he left Prague to take up a new post, at Berlin’s Kroll Opera House, then the most progressive opera stage in German-speaking parts of Europe. Lamentably, in 1931 the already expanding national socialist movement achieved the company’s disbandment. Two years later Hitler became Reichskanzler, whereupon Zemlinsky lost any chance for furthering his career in Germany and returned to his native Vienna. His Sinfonietta, Op. 23 was written between March and July 1934, and its world premiere took place in Prague. It was mounted by Zemlinsky’s friend, and from 1916-1923 music director of the New German Theatre, Heinrich Jalowetz (1881–1946), who himself was forced out of his post as theatre conductor in Cologne after Hitler’s rise to power, and subsequently was granted asylum in then still free Czechoslovakia. The Sinfonietta was performed during a charitable concert given on 11 March, 1935 at the large hall of Lucerna Palace, with the participation of the New German Theatre Orchestra.
The composition can be regarded as a kind of Zemlinsky’s personal cryptic message, using motifs from his String Quartet No. 2 from the song cycle to poems by Maurice Maeterlinck, and most notably a quotation from the opera Der Kreidekreis, premiered in Zurich in October 1933. The Reich’s Music Chamber then proved “benevolent” enough to allow the opera to be staged in four German cities, before imposing a ban on any further productions. An eloquent passage of the text underlies the very fragment quoted in the music of the Sinfonietta: “Lock the cage! Keep close watch over the house! Or else the bird will fly the coop!” TheSinfonietta’s opening movement, featuring “supply distinctive themes and unusually colourful orchestration”, is a “waltz-like fantasy of sharp contrasts between structure and speeds, the second part is a ballad carrying a lyric echo of Mahler’s solemn compositions, and the final rondo is a joyfully dynamic movement with dominant rushing march-like elements”, wrote a Prague critic of the time (Leo Schleissner, Bohemia, 12/03/1935).
On June 8 of the same year, the Sinfonietta was performed by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, with the composer conducting, in a concert broadcast live by radio. Under the impression of listening to it, Alban Berg wrote in a complimentary letter to Zemlinsky: “Once again a work embued with such absolute palette, such structural purity. The authentic Zemlinsky tone […] which I love so much.” The music publishers Universal Edition still managed to produce a printed edition of the score, but thereafter the work’s subsequent performances continued to be prevented for a long period due to the enforcement of the Nazi Nuremberg Laws. By then Europe as a whole ceased to be safe, so in autumn 1938 Zemlinsky left the continent, along with many others (including the Brno-born conductor Heinrich Jalowetz). The Sinfonietta was relaunched onto the concert circuit in 1940, by Dimitri Mitropoulos with the New York Philharmonic, and it was again on radio waves that it reached a formidably wide audience. Eventually, the broadcast even led to the subsequent re-establishment of contacts between artists who had previously, in Europe, lived and worked in proximity of one another. Arnold Schoenberg then telegraphed to Zemlinsky from Los Angeles: “I have just heard your amazing Sinfonietta. I do hope it will mark bhe beginning of your American triumph.” Lamentably, he was wrong. Though the United States granted Zemlinsky asylum, he did not live to see his career successfully resuscitated in America. He died in New York in March 1942.
In 1911, as a student of the St Petersburg Conservatoire, SERGEI PROKOFIEV (1891–1953) had his first piano works published by the famous Moscow publishing house P. Jurgensen. Emboldened by the event, the young composer went on to create the first of his five piano concertos in 1911–12. Piano Concerto No. 1 in D flat major, Op. 10 was later described by the composer in his memoirs as “the first more-or-less mature work with regard to new musical ideas and formal structure”. In Prokofiev’s own words, what is new is “the audial relation of the piano and the orchestra, and, in the formal dimension, the repetition of the introduction of the sonata Allegro after the exposition, the concise Andante before the development, and the development itself, which replaces the Scherzo, and the return of the introductory theme in the beginning of the reprise as a cadenza. Although the form can be said to be a mere sequence of individual episodes, these are all quite closely related.”
The structure of the concerto, which Prokofiev thus briefly described, can also be interpreted as an implementation of the principle of the Baroque three-movement form with contrasting tempos (fast – slow – fast); the distinctive introductory theme with the octaves in the piano, mentioned by the composer, acts as a refrain in the work. The single-movement structure references the synthesising form first applied by Franz Liszt in his Piano Sonata in B minor, in which the sonata cycle is condensed into a seamless flow of music. Harsh chordal harmonies, exacting rhythms, and motoric motion, use of the piano’s percussive features, those are all elements that will come to characterise Prokofiev’s specific style. The premiere took place in Moscow on 15 July 1912, with the solo performed by the composer himself.
Ballet Jeu de cartes (A Card Game) by IGOR STRAVINSKY (1882–1971) was written in 1937 for the choreographer George Balanchine (1904–1983), a Paris acquaintance of the composer from the 1920s and an erstwhile member of Sergei Diaghilev’s famous Ballets Russes. Balanchine immigrated to New York in 1934, where he and his newly founded American Ballet strove to establish independent ballet performances at the Metropolitan Opera (with little initial success). One of the works with which he tried to persuade the Met’s management of his proposals was the three-act ballet A Card Game. The libretto was co-written by both artists – Balanchine and Stravinsky.
The premiere was held at the Metropolitan Opera on 27 April 1937 and was conducted by Stravinsky in person. The dancers represent poker cards, with the Joker in a fool’s costume attempting all kinds of intrigue. But the Joker is defeated, and the third “deal” culminates in a victory for the Hearts. The jestful nature of the production was highlighted by the fact that the Joker was danced by William Dollar (1907–1986), whose name was well suited to the symbolic loss in a gambling game. Stravinsky also plays with the composition. He was said to be an avid poker player himself, and his music is highly suggestive of the gestures and tensions of the game, which escalate right up to the final triumph of the Hearts.
Following the New York premiere, Stravinsky gave the ballet a motto from one of Jean de La Fontaine’s fables: “Continual war must be waged on evil men. Peace in itself is good, we know. I agree; but what will happen then If we deal with a faithless foe?” The ballet received its European premiere at the Dresden Opera on 13 October 1937, under the baton of Karl Böhm and with choreography by the prominent modern dance artist Valeria Kratina (1892–1983).
As in the case of Stravinsky’s other ballets, the music of A Card Game is able to stand on its own, and its jest can be conveyed purely by sound. Stravinsky parodies or directly quotes other composers (C. M. Weber, Verdi, Ravel, Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, the overture to Rossini’s The Barber of Seville), but as a whole “it is clearly and utterly Stravinsky”, the Dresden critics wrote. “He lets us glimpse his cards only at his own whim.”Sensuous rhythms, simple melodies and harmonies, characteristically sober instrumentation, and humour are able to “captivate even those who cannot play poker.”
The Israeli conductor ILAN VOLKOV, known for his literally voracious bent for experimenttion in all musical domains, has been fittingly described as “a blur of manic energy, a font of curiosity and advocacy deftly navigating the bureaucratic layers of classical music institutions in order to interrupt the status quo from within …” (National Sawdust, Brooklyn).
He embarked on his conducting career upon completing his studies at London’s Royal College of Music, as a nineteen-year-old, when he became an assistant conductor of the Royal Northern Sinfonia. In 1999 Seiji Ozawa handpicked him as his assistant for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Since January 2003, he has worked on a regular basis with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, initially as its principal conductor and from 2009 as chief guest conductor. In 2011 he became the music director and principal conductor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in Reykjavík. His arrival there coincided with the inauguration of Reykjavík’s Harpa Concert Hall on 4 May, 2011. The following year already saw Volkov founding the Tectonic, a festival combining modern classical music programmes with projects involving electronic music, free improvisation, rock, folk, world music and beyond, an undertaking which has evolved to its current status as a key platform of contemporary music.
Volkov has premiered works by many internationally renowned composers, including among others Jonathan Harvey, Hans Abrahamsen, Unsuk Chin or Mark-Anthony Turnage. His Reykjavík era came to its close in August 2014 when he took his orchestra to its debut appearance at the BBC Proms in London. Ilan Volkov’s keen interest in new music led him to the establishment in 2020, together with the Russian violinist and composer Ilya Gringolts, of the I&I Foundation. Based in Zurich, the Foundation has aimed at providing all-round support to the contemporary music scene, including notably the creative endeavours of young up-and-coming composers, in conjunction with festival organizers, orchestras, ensembles and soloists.
Ilan Volkov has worked with major festivals in Salzburg, Edinburgh, London (BBC Proms), Lucerne and Berlin, as well as with prominent orchestras including the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the City of Birmingham SO, the SWR Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart, the Seoul Philharmonic, the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, or the Oslo Philharmonic. He is equally busy in the field of opera where he has conducted at the San Francisco Opera (Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin), the Glyndebourne Festival (Britten: A Midsummer Night’s Dream), the Washington National Opera (Britten: Peter Grimes), the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse (Weill: The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny), and at the Israeli Opera Tel-Aviv-Yafo (Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle). His discography includes numerous award-winning recordings released by Hyperion, NMC and Aeon.
Jan Bartoš’s recent released CD on Supraphon, performing Vítězslav Novák’s Piano Concerto in E minor, with Jakub Hrůša and the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra (PRSO), has been critically acclaimed internationally. Voted London’s The Guardian newspaper’s Classical Album of the Week and The Month’s Best Albums in September 2020, who wrote of Bartoš’s expressive gifts that the Novák concerto crammed with hefty bravura solo “is dispatched on the recording by Jan Bartoš with suitable muscularity”. Stretto classical magazine wrote, “the music is brilliantly performed by both, the soloist and the conductor.“ And London’s The Sunday Times highlighted the CD as “worth knowing in Hrůša and Bartoš’s idiomatic performances.“ Bartoš’sJanáček CD, selected as the Gramophone Editor’s Choice, noted Bartoš draws listens into “Janáček’s compelling sound world, music both exposed and somehow personal, lines and details delivered from the very beginning with imagination and deep thought.“ Bartoš’s Janáček CD was further selected among 10 Classical Albums To Usher In The Next Decade by the National Public Radio, USA. Furthermore, Bartoš’s Beethoven double album received a high 5-star review in the BBC Music Magazine, stating that “everything in this recording is outstanding … The Arietta of Op. 111 is here gorgeous beyond words.“
Bartoš recently appeared at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in a solo recital of Janáček’s piano works which was viewed online by an international world audience. At the Prague Spring IMF he will perform Prokofiev’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 with the PRSO, conducted by Ilan Volkov. He has also played this composition with Kristjan Järvi and the PRSO at the Leoš Janáček IMF in Ostrava (2019). His other appearances have included a solo recital (along with Evgeny Kissin, Marc-Andre Hamelin, and Beatrice Rana) at the Rudolf Firkušný Piano Festival in Prague, and the complete Janáček’s piano works at the International Festival Janáček Brno. Jan Bartoš has given concerts throughout Europe, in Asia and the USA (including Carnegie Hall). He made his New York debut in 2009 playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5with the Manhattan Philharmonia.
The late-Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek was a keen supporter of Jan Bartoš and regularly appeared together in concerts with the Czech Philharmonic. Together with this orchestra, Bartoš recorded Mozart’s Piano Concertos in D minor KV 466 and in A major KV 414. The Sunday Times wrote that Bartoš’s “crisp articulation and singing legato are never far from the spirit of the composer’s sunnier comedies.“ These live recordings came with the endorsement of the pianist Alfred Brendel. Bartoš was invited to perform on the Supraphon DVD My Musical Life (2021) by Alfred Brendel celebrating his 90th birthday, who wrote, “Jan Bartoš is one of my most impressive and exciting young colleagues. In him, virtuosity is coupled with deeply serious musicianship.“
Jan Bartoš was the last pupil of Ivan Moravec. He studied under Martin Ballý, then with Miroslav Langer, and he continued his studies with Alfred Brendel, Leon Fleisher, James Tocco, and Zenon Fishbein. He also developed his proficiency as a chamber musician in New York with Robert Mann (Juilliard String Quartet) and Lawrence Dutton (Emerson String Quartet). Jan Bartoš holds a Professional Studies Diploma from the Manhattan School of Music in New York and a doctorate from Academy of Music in Prague. To date Jan Bartoš has won three competitions in New York; he garnered 1st prize at the Rotary Musikförderpreis competition in Nuremberg, the Dutch Rucorva Trust Award, and in Germany the Schimmel Prize. He is the founder and director of the Prague Music Performance and the Artistic Director of the Czech festival American Spring.
The PRAGUE RADIO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA is one of the country’s finest and oldest orchestras. Its history dates back to the year 1926 and the early years of Radiojournal broadcasting. After 1945 the ensemble was transformed into a major symphony orchestra, led by a series of eminent chief and regular conductors. Vladimír Válek stood at the helm of the orchestra for a record twenty-six years (1985–2011); Ondrej Lenárd had headed SOČR since the 2011/2012 season. Since 2018/2019 season, the orchestra is led by Chief Conductor Alexander Liebreich, and Marek Šedivý has been engaged as the Principal Guest Conductor.
In recent years the orchestra has worked with numerous top Czech and foreign conductors, among them Tomáš Netopil, Petr Altrichter, Jakub Hrůša, Cornelius Meister, Stephan Asbury, Ion Marin, Michał Nesterowicz, Anu Tali and Wayne Marshall. The soloists that the PRSO has accompanied include the pianists Krystian Zimerman, violinists Leila Josefowicz, Sergey Khachatryan and Pierre Amoyal, cellists Gautier Capuçon, Alban Gerhardt, István Várdai and Steven Isserlis and trombonist Christian Lindberg. It has also collaborated with jazz musician Avishai Cohen, and singers Renée Fleming, Elīna Garanča, José Cura, Juan Diego Flórez, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Jonas Kaufmann. Among the eminent Czech artists to perform with the orchestra have been Lukáš Vondráček, Jan Bartoš, Tomáš Jamník, Ivo Kahánek, Jan Mráček, Adam Plachetka, Simona Šaturová, Kateřina Kněžíková, Petr Nekoranec and Vilém Veverka.
The orchestra regularly commissions pieces from leading Czech contemporary composers, such as Pavel Zemek Novák, Jan Ryant Dřízal, Miroslav Srnka, Ondřej Adámek and Jiří Kadeřábek. The PRSO’s recording work is also noteworthy. Its most recent output includes a Janáček trilogy conducted by Tomáš Netopil on the Supraphon label. Two of those releases were named Editor’s Choice by the prestigious magazine Gramophone. The first complete recordings of Miloslav Kabeláč’s eight symphonies (Supraphon, 2016) ranked as a singular achievement, as did the recording of all of Martinů’s piano concertos (Radioservis, 2016).
The PRSO offers concerts within season-ticket series at the Rudolfinum’s Dvořák Hall, the Saint Agnes Convent and Forum Karlín in Prague. The orchestra is a frequent guest of major Czech festivals: the Prague Spring International Music Festival, the Dvořák Prague Festival, Smetana’s Litomyšl, the Leoš Janáček International Music Festival and the Český Krumlov International Music Festival. It is also a regular guest at venues throughout Europe and in Japan.