The turn of the 1920s and ’30s was characterised in Europe by musical ferment, into which those attending the concert will be immersed by a revelatory survey programme.
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.
Hans Krása (1899–1944) is widely remembered as the composer of the children’s opera Brundibár, which played an important role in the cultural activities of Czechoslovak citizens of Jewish origin who were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The opera gave them hope in the victory of good over evil. Krása was himself a prisoner in Theresienstadt for two years, then the Nazis murdered him after he was transported to Auschwitz. Before the war, Krása had been living a bohemian lifestyle. He did not compose very much music, but his works from that time are undoubtedly deserving of attention. One of them is the psalm cantata Die Erde ist des Herrn… (1931), which was premiered at the New German Theatre in Prague on 10 March 1932 with Heinrich Swoboda conducting. The critic Oskar Baum described it as “visually rich with imagination of sounds of pliant liveliness in combination (…) with inner depth and visionary creative power in a lyrical vein, the likes of which we have not heard since Mahler’s days.” Then, however, the cantata had to wait nearly another seventy years for a second performance. Because of Krása’s Jewish origins, the composer found himself in disfavour with both the Nazi and Communist regimes, and he did not begin to be rediscovered until the 1990s thanks to increased interest in the composers of Theresienstadt. The modern-era premiere of the cantata took place in August 2001 in Theresienstadt under the baton of Israel Yinon. Now, however, it is time for Krása’s music to be heard not only in connection with Theresienstadt commemorations, but also in confrontation with other musical contexts. That is the only way that the composer’s original style can truly stand out.
“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).
Lucie Hájková is a graduate of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague and a laureate of several vocal competitions (including the Dvořák Competition in Karlovy Vary and Ad honorem Mozart in Prague). Since 2020 she has been a soloists with the National Theatre in Prague.
She also sings at the J. K. Tyl Theatre in Pilsen and the F. X. Šalda Theatre in Liberec and with the Prague Chamber Opera and the Opera of the National Theatre in Brno. She gives concerts in this country and abroad (Germany, Austria, Spain, Japan, Egypt), and she frequently performs the modern vocal literature. For Czech Radio she has recorded Luboš Sluka’s Love Songs, and with the Zemlinsky Quartet she took part in recording the string sextet Maiblumen blühten überall by Alexander Zemlinsky. Among her recent major parts has been the title role in Libuše in the Brno production of Smetana’s opera. According to a review on the portal KlasikaPlus: “Vocally, Libuše came off very well, too, so the wager on youth paid off. As Libuše, Lucie Hájková appears in a long, white dress, and she is dignified and distinguished from her first words, with a clear voice and full, secure high notes, for which she was able to sustain her strength right to the very end. She was a fresh, youthful princess, youthful, radiating respect and femininity.”
Lucie Hilscherová, a laureate of the vocal competitions Cantilena Bayreuth, Musica Sacra in Rome, and the Antonín Dvořák International Vocal Competition in Karlovy Vary, makes guest appearances at the National Theatre in Prague, the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre in Ostrava, the J. K. Tyl Theatre in Pilsen, the Silesian Theatre in Opava, the State Theatre in Košice (Slovakia), and the National Theatre in Mannheim.
She has given concert performances in Europe, Asia, and the USA and has collaborated with ensembles including the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra (Barbican Hall, London), Tokyo’s Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra (Suntory Hall, Tokyo), the Bach-Collegium in Stuttgart (Liederhalle, Stuttgart), SWR Symphony Orchestra in Stuttgart (Beethovenhall, Bonn), the Tonkünstler-Orchester (Musikverein, Vienna), the Czech Philharmonic, and the Prague Philharmonia (Rudolfinum, Prague) under conductors including Helmuth Rilling, Alexander Vedernikov, Kazushi Ono, Libor Pešek, Jiří Bělohlávek, and Tomáš Netopil. She has performed at the Musikfest Stuttgart, the Beethovenfest Bonn, the Grafenegg Musik-Sommer, the Prague Spring Festival, the Brno Easter Festival of Sacred Music, and Smetana’s Litomyšl.
Richard Samek studied at the Janáček Academy of Performing Arts in Brno and then privately under Natalia Romanová. He is a laureate of several international vocal competitions (including the Dvořák Competition in Karlovy Vary and the M. S. Trnavský Competition in Trnava). He makes regular guest appearances at the National Theatre in Prague, and he performs frequently at the J. K. Tyl Theatre in Pilsen, the National Theatre in Brno, the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre, and the Slovak National Theatre in Bratislava.
He has appeared as a guest with L’Opéra de Reims, L’Opéra de Limoges, the Opéra de Rennes, the Staatsoperette Dresden, the Anhaltisches Theater Dessau, the Theater Magdeburg, the Staatsoper Hannover, the Aalto-Musiktheater Essen, and the Semperoper Dresden. He took part in live recordings of Strauss’s operetta Night in Venice from the festival Seefestspiele Mörbisch 2015, Smetana’s Dalibor (with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Jiří Bělohlávek), and Fibich’s Bride of Messina (with the Magdeburg Philharmonic). With Dagmar Pecková he recorded Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde for Supraphon. He has collaborated with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic, the Prague Symphony Orchestra, the Prague Philharmonia, the Brno Philharmonic, the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. He has appeared repeatedly at such important festivals as Dvořák Prague, the Leoš Janáček International Music Festival, Moravian Autumn, the Prague Spring Festival, Seefestspiele Mörbisch, Smetana’s Litomyšl, and the Saint Wenceslas Music Festival.
František Zahradníček is a graduate of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, where he studied under Ivan Kusnjer. In 2000 he made his debut at the National Theatre in Prague, where he has sung several roles in operas by Mozart (Figaro, Papageno, Don Alfonso, Leporello), Rossini (Basilio, Don Magnifico), Verdi (Banco, Zaccaria), Dvořák (Marbuel, the Count, the Water Goblin), and Janáček (Gorjančikov, the Forester).
He has been a regular guest at the Wexford Opera Festival and has performed at the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari and the Teatro national Sao Carlo in Lisabon. He has appeared in concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall in a tribute to the victims of a terrorist attack. With the Opera of the National Theatre he has appeared in Mozart title roles and has toured Japan several times. As a concert artist, he has collaborated with the Prague Symphony Orchestra, the Prague Philharmonia, and the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, and with conductors including Jiří Bělohlávek, Libor Pešek, Jakub Hrůša, Tomáš Netopil, Gennady Rozhdestvensy, Leopold Hager, Asher Fish, and John Fiore.
The Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno (founded in 1990) focuses on the oratorio, cantata, and opera repertoire, and it presents itself not only in this country, but also worldwide in the very top class in the field of choral artistry. It appears at all of Europe’s prestigious festivals and important concert halls, and it works with the world’s best orchestras and conductors. The choir has an extensive discography, and it has won numerous prizes (including Echo Klassik two times, Tokusen, and the Classic Prague Awards). The man behind the ensemble’s success is its founder, choirmaster, and director Petr Fiala (1943), a graduate of the Brno Conservatoire and of the Janáček Academy of Performing Arts, who has been working as a choirmaster and conductor for more than fifty years, and who is also the composer of 180 works. At this year’s Prague Spring Festival, the choir will also be giving a concert of its own on 25 May, when it will sing music by Anton Bruckner, Henryk Górecki, Leoš Janáček, and Petr Fiala. The men of the choir will also appear at the concluding concert on 3 June in Igor Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex.
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.