An orchestra with more than a century of tradition, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), is returning to the festival after nearly thirty years. “It will be just our second visit to the Festival, and almost 30 years since our first, which was in 1994 with our then Music Director Sir Simon Rattle”, says the orchestra’s chief executive Stephen Maddock. It was with this very orchestra that Rattle began his stellar career. This time, leading the orchestra from Birmingham in a programme combining the music of Edward Elgar and Anton Bruckner will be its present music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. “She is one of today’s most interesting and most inspirational musicians”, says Prague Spring Festival programming director Josef Třeštík. “But this will not be her first appearance—she already performed at the festival in 2014. Back then, few people knew her name. She was conducting Kremerata Baltica, and it was Gidon Kremer who played a substantial role in her musical career,” says Třeštík. Seven years have passed, and the conductor is returning to the festival as a widely acclaimed figure of classical music whose face has appeared on the cover of perhaps every prestigious music journal and whose activities are the topic of lively discussion. “Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla has followed in Sir Simon’s footsteps, and has a particular love of the beautiful Symphony No.6 by Bruckner”, says Maddock. “Sir Edward Elgar’s music has always been a central part of the CBSO’s repertoire—indeed the Orchestra’s first full symphonic concert in 1920 featured Sir Edward conducting his Cello Concerto,” he explains. Playing the solo part will be the French cellist Gautier Capuçon, a Prague Spring Festival artist-in-residence. “I’m enormously pleased to be performing the work in Prague with the CBSO and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla”, he says enthusiastically. “The first time we played it together, I felt an extraordinary affinity. Her conducting is as natural as breathing, and she follows the melodic lines as if she were singing”, he adds.
The Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is one of the greatest artistic figures of her generation. She was the winner of the 2012 Salzburg Competition for Young Conductors, and since 2016 she has been the music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. She is appearing at the Prague Spring Festival as the holder of the title of 2020 Opus Klassik Conductor of the Year, a prestigious German award. She took over the orchestra when she was 29 years old. This was a major event for the world of classical music, and not just in the United Kingdom. The critic Norman Lebrecht, known for his provocative commentary, wrote after her engagement that next to the CBSO, London’s orchestras are now going to look “stale and middle-aged”. The young artist at the helm of the prestigious orchestra provoked great expectations, but the orchestra did not doubt her even for an instant. In an interview for the magazine Gramophone, the conductor recalled what was going through her head when she accepted the offer: “I felt joy, of course, but also responsibility: taking on those incredible musicians and then thinking about the direction of the orchestra, its role in the city and everything.” No one in Birmingham was concerned that they were hiring a woman. After all, there have been women in the orchestra and its management since the very beginning more than 100 years ago. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla because the first woman in her field to sign an exclusive contract with the Deutsche Grammophon label, and her very first recording with the symphonies of Mieczysław Weinberg, which she made with the CBSO, Gidon Kremer, and the Kremerata Baltica chamber orchestra, was awarded as the 2020 Album of the Year by the magazine Gramophone. For the same journal, Richard Bratby wrote: “With Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, something unexpected and illuminating occurs in every concert…The audience responds, the orchestra responds, and—as with Oramo and Sir Simon Rattle before her—that mutual trust creates a space for exploration.”
Mirga was born in Vilnius to a musical family and graduated from the conducting programme at the Kunstuniversität in Graz, then she continued her studies at the conservatoires in Bologna, Leipzig, and Zurich. Engagements followed in Heidelberg and Bern, and for two years she led the Landestheater in Salzburg. She also received the Dudamel Fellowship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which was followed by invitations from orchestras and opera houses around the world. All of this led to an engagement with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. When Gramophone asked her how work with the orchestra was going, she told the magazine that “this orchestra has a youthful spirit, in the sense of being open to things: being curious, wanting to discover new repertoire, new ways of playing known repertoire, and new ways of carrying out our role in society.” Her other recordings for Deutsche Grammophon include two albums with the title “The British Project”, on which she and the CBSO present, among other things, works by Elgar, Walton, and Britten. With the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra and the Kremerata Baltica chamber orchestra, she has recorded works by the contemporary Lithuanian composer Raminta Šerkšnytė. In the future, she wishes to focus on the music of the composers Ruth Gipps and Michael Tippett, who are associated with the CBSO. Some of the highlights of the coming season will be her participation at the Lucerne Festival with the Mozarteum Orchestra, a concert performance of Janáček’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen with the Birmingham orchestra at Symphony Hall in their own city, in Dortmund, and at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, then in the winter of 2022 she will be conducting a new production of that same opera at the Bavarian State Opera with the stage director Barrie Koska. Her performances with the CBSO will include concertos with the cellists Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Julia Hagen and the violinist Patricia Kopatchinkaja, and she will also conduct Brahms’s German Requiem and Weinberg’s symphonies. In September 2021 the orchestra announced that beginning in April 2023, Kazuki Yamada would be Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s successor as chief conductor. The Lithuanian artist will remain as the principal guest conductor.
The artist-in-residence for the 77th annual Prague Spring Festival will be the French cellist Gautier Capuçon. The festival public will have the opportunity to discover one of the world’s finest instrumentalists on three different programmes. In the Rudolfinum’s Dvořák Hall he will appear with the pianist Jérôme Ducros (16 May), with whom he has been collaborating successfully for 25 years, at the Prague Crossroads he will present works for solo cello that are included on his most recent album Souvenirs (17 May), and finally with the chief conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla he will perform Edward Elgar’s great Cello Concerto (18 May). “I am enormously pleased and honoured to have been invited to this year’s festival”, says the artist concerning his residency at his very first appearance at the festival. “I’m very happy and honoured to be invited for the next edition of the festival. It’s going to be fantastic and also intense to be able to experience three different programmes. I’m very impatient to be back; Prague is a city of my heart; I have great memories of it.”
Gautier Capuçon is regarded as a 21st-century ambassador of the cello, but he himself uses the title “L’Ambassadeur” to refer to his instrument, made in 1701 in the workshop of the Venetian master Matteo Goffriller. He has been playing that cello for more than 20 years: “It’s a phenomenal instrument. I have a feeling that it is a cello without limits. I am inspired every day to find new tones, new sounds. It’s endless. It’s a great companion”, he told Strings Magazine in 2018.
The cello is ideal in combination with Capuçon’s infectious musicianship and virtuosity, as is shown by his frequent guest appearances with the world’s top orchestras. Gauiter Capuçon appears with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Czech Philharmonic. He has been collaborating for 15 years with the chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Semyon Bychkov. With the conductor Jakub Hrůša and the Orchestre de Paris, he appeared in the autumn of 2020 at the Grande salle Pierre Boulez in Paris, where they performed Elgar’s Cello Concerto together.
The artist also plays chamber music regularly with stars from around the world including the pianists Martha Argerich and Yuja Wang. He also appears frequently with his equally famous brother, the violinist Renaud Capuçon.
He is well known to audiences at the BBC Proms and the festival in Lugano, Switzerland.
Among his special performances have been participation at celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when he played parts of Bloch’s composition From Jewish Life, and with his brother he appeared at a concert at the Eiffel Tower on the occasion of celebrations of Bastille Day, where he played before more than 35,000 listeners. At the same venue in 2019 the cellist played an arrangement of Dvořák’s Song to the Moon from the opera Rusalka; that concert was seen on television by more than 3 million viewers.
Besides giving concerts, Capuçon is also an active teacher. Since 2014 he has been the head of the Classe d’Excellence de Violoncelle of the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. Each year, he chooses six talented young cellists to whom he devotes attention during lessons on interpretation, joint music making, and seminars with discussion.
Music critics have no doubt about this artist’s qualities either: “…Gautier Capuçon plays the cello with the control and wisdom of a much older musician. The lightness of his touch and the consistent clarity of his bow strokes are quite admirable in themselves, but when combined with an uncanny sweetness of tone in the higher registers they are breathtaking,” wrote the magazine Gramophone. In February 2018 the British website Arts Desk said about his performance: “That Capuçon is among the greatest of cellists was announced by the passionate projection of his amazing sound from the start. Capuçon is an exceptional chamber musician too, so it was hardly surprising to find him fine-tuned to his orchestral colleagues.”
Gautier Capuçon comes from Chambéry in the Savoy Alps, from a family of lovers of music and skiing. In his case, the choice of the cello was a lucky coincidence: his sister Aude played the piano, his brother Renaud the violin, and Gautier, barely five years old, got the cello. “I’ve always known that it is my main instrument. From the moment when I began to play, it nearly became a part of my body”, he said when recalling his beginnings in an interview for the Czech news server Novinky in 2015. We should add that together with his brother Renaud he has made nearly thirty recordings, and for the album Inventions (2006) he also invited his sister Aude, who continues to play the piano as a hobby.
After completing his study of cello playing in his home town Chambéry, Capuçon continued his studies at the Conservatoire Supérieur in Paris in the studio of Philippe Muller, an important representative of the French school of cello playing, then in Vienna he studied under the equally renowned cellist Heinrich Schiff. Both of his teachers had studied under the legendary French cellist André Navarra. Success at competitions soon followed—first prize at the Maurice Ravel International Music Academy (1998), victory at the André Navarra International Cello Competition (1999), the title of Talent of the Year 2001 at the annual French classical music event Victoires de la musique classique, and three years later the Burletti-Buitoni Trust Award.
Capuçon records exclusively for the Erato label (Warner Classics), and four of his recordings have earned him the prestigious ECHO Klassik award. In his discography we find, among other things, Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony (hr-Sinfonieorchester) and Paavo Järvi, and Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations and Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante with the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre and Valery Gergiev. He has recorded Brahms’s Double Concerto with his brother Renaud, the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, and the conductor Myung-Whun Chung, and Haydn’s concertos with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Daniel Harding. He also took part in the album Martha Argerich & Friends, Live From Lugano 2015. With the pianist Yuja Wang he made a CD recording of the Debussy and Franck cello sonatas, which will also be heard on a Prague Spring concert.
He enjoys involvement in non-traditional projects; in 2018 to make a video clip for the album Intuition he went up to the summit of the mountain Petit Combin in the Swiss Alps at an elevation of 3,356 metres, where he played Saint-Säens’s famous Swan from the suite The Carnival of the Animals at a temperature of 15 degrees below zero.
With his last album Souvenirs, issued in the autumn of 2021, the artist looks back a bit to the repertoire that accompanied the beginnings of his career, celebrating both 20 years of partnership with the recording company and his 40th birthday.
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) is the flagship of musical life in Birmingham and the entire West Midlands region of central England. The orchestra’s tradition dates back to 1920, when the conductor of its first symphonic concert was the composer Sir Edward Elgar, whose music begins this Prague Spring Festival programme. After that came a succession of music directors: Adrian Boult, George Weldon, Andrzej Panufnik, and Louis Frémaux. Simon Rattle brought the orchestra worldwide fame with his progressive ideas, and after him the chief conductors Sakari Oramo and Andris Nelsons further strengthened that orientation.
Now it is Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla who follows in their footsteps, and the principal guest conductor is Kazuki Yamada. Other members of the conducting staff are Michael Seal, assistant conductor Jaume Santonja Espinós, and choirmaster Simon Halsey. Under the leadership of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, the orchestra is not backing down from the visionary path taken by her predecessors. We should recall that Rattle began the 20th-century music concert series Towards the Millennium, a series of television programmes about the music of the 20th century titled Leaving Home, and supported the programming new of works, the emphasis on English repertoire, and performances of the complete Sibelius symphonies with the Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo or of Shostakovich’s music with Andris Nelsons.
All of the conductors got on board with the CBSO quite early. In fact, the orchestra is known for that: Simon Rattle got his start with them at 24 years of age as the youngest chief conductor in the United Kingdom, Sakari Oramo was approached by orchestra management after two concerts, and Nelsons after just three rehearsals. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla got her offer from the orchestra six months after her first appearance because the musicians felt that there was the right kind of energy between them. The public also reacted to her concert enthusiastically.
The organisation operates more than just the symphony orchestra. The “CBSO family” includes 650 musicians, and besides the symphony orchestra, there is a choir of nearly 200 “professional amateurs”, a choir for children and youth, and a youth orchestra with more than 100 members. During the year, youth orchestra members take part in an orchestral academy and conducting and composition workshops, and for some of them, these studies are an important step towards a professional career.
Educational programmes are an integral part of the orchestra’s profile, covering all age categories from the youngest children to seniors. This involves more than just educational concerts; the musicians also regularly visit schools, children with special needs are not overlooked, and some musicians are trained to work with seniors suffering from dementia. The orchestra also works in cooperation with the University of Birmingham and the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and it offers stipends for composition students at the University of Cambridge so they can hear their works live.
Since 1991, the CBSO has been performing at Symphony Hall, which city representatives built on the basis of the orchestra’s extraordinary successes with its former chief conductor Simon Rattle. With a capacity for more than 2,200 listeners and superb acoustics, it is regarded as one of the best concert halls in the world. Each year, the orchestra gives more than 150 performances with repertoire ranging from Classical and Romantic works to contemporary music. They do not shy away from film music, either.
A regular highpoint of the orchestra’s season is an appearance at the BBC Proms in London’s Royal Albert Hall. In past years, the orchestra has gone on successful tours of Europe, Japan, China, and the United Arab Emirates.
The orchestra has a busy recording schedule. One of its greatest successes in that field has been the complete Saint-Saëns piano concertos with Stephen Hough; in 2008 Gramophone magazine called it the best recording of classical music of the last 30 years.
The Cello Concerto in E minor Op. 85 is the last completed major work by Edward Elgar (1857–1934). This music of extraordinary depth and intensity is elegiac and contemplative. Feelings of uncertainty and desolation run through the concerto like a leitmotiv, with catharsis arriving only in the final movement. Elgar composed the work in the summer of 1919, when he moved to the country in hope of improving his health. He needed to come to terms with not only his own vulnerability, but also the consequences of the war and the departure of the “Old World”. A year earlier he wrote to the poet Laurence Binyon: “I do not feel drawn to write peace music somehow… the whole atmosphere is too full of complexities for me to feel music to it…”
Believe it or not, the work was a failure at first. The October 1919 premiere was unsuccessful because of a lack of rehearsal time. Elgar was sharing the concert with Albert Coates who, as chief conductor for the approaching main season, wished to make a good impression, so he used up the rehearsal time at Elgar’s expense. Critics praised the concerto but called the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance under Elgar’s baton “miserable”. After that, the soloist Felix Salmond never played the work outside of England. Elgar later performed the work with the cellist Beatrice Harrison, and they recorded it in 1920. The concerto first achieved worldwide fame when the legendary cellist Jacqueline du Pré recorded it in 1965. It was her recording that Prague Spring Festival artist-in-residence Gautier Capuçon first heard at seven years of age. “It was a great shock for me”, he recalls. “Now when I play the work, it is always very emotional. It is one of Elgar’s best works and one of the most important cello concertos in the entire repertoire.”
The symphonic music of Anton Bruckner (1824–1896) was given many labels already during the composer’s lifetime, and it has not entirely rid itself of them to this day. There were complaints about endless stretches of music leading nowhere, and Bruckner was even accused of having composed one symphony nine times. As late as 1957, a critic for The Musical Times wrote that from the Symphony No. 6 in A major, “One has the impression…that we are traversing a town with innumerable traffic lights, all of which turn red as we approach them.” This shows us one thing: it is not easy to grasp music that is based formally on late Beethoven and Schubert and the colours and harmonies of Wagner, and that is an intimate religious dialogue that reflects the composer’s experience as an organist.
Every lover of Bruckner’s music also knows that the Sixth Symphony has one of the most beautiful slow movements the composer ever wrote, a masterful formal conception, and a joyous atmosphere.
The composer proudly called his Sixth Symphony his most daring (“Die Sechste ist die Keckste”). He wrote it in Vienna from 1879 to 1881 and employed his typical procedures like internal connections between the outer movements and the extensive use of rhythmic figures, and especially the “Bruckner rhythm” (a sequence of five notes in a particular ordering), daring harmonies, and writing influenced by his experience as an organist. The work’s brevity and quicker tempos differentiate it from his other great symphonies, while in the second movement he employed sonata form instead of the usual ternary structure. Also unusual is the beginning of the symphony with a rhythmic figure instead of Bruckner’s usual string tremolo. The common denominator for all four movements is contrast between light and darkness and between the major and minor modes. Notice the simple, almost inconspicuous recapitulation of the first movement and the breathtaking mood of the second movement, which seems to be a distant relative of Mahler’s music. The English composer Robert Simpson called the sonata structure of the movement “the most perfectly realized slow sonata design since the Adagio of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata.”
And if we are not helped by these guideposts, we can simply follow the advice of the British musicologist Donald Tovey: “…if one clears their mind, not only of prejudice but of wrong points of view, and treats Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony as a kind of music we have never heard before, there is no doubt that its high quality will strike us at every moment. “
During his lifetime, Bruckner only heard a live performance of the symphony’s two middle movements, which the Vienna Philharmonic played in February 1883 with little success. The whole work was first heard in 1899 in Vienna with the conductor Gustav Mahler, although he made major changes to the score. The public did not hear the symphony in its complete and original form until 1901 in Stuttgart under the baton of Karl Pohlig. Later, the work became a part of the repertoire of orchestras and conductors around the world, including the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with Eugen Jochum, Bernard Hatink, Herbert Blomstedt with the San Francisco Symphony, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and last but not least, the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan.