“I regard the chance to make my debut at the Prague Spring Festival as both an enormous honour and a challenge. And all the more so because the festival’s academic council has proposed me as the first graduate of the Janáček Academy of Performing Arts in Brno to receive this wonderful opportunity to make a conducting debut”, says the Ostrava native and patriot Marek Prášil. About the chief guest conductor of the South Czech Philharmonic in České Budějovice and conductor of the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre in Ostrava, the Prague Spring programming director Josef Třeštík says: “He is one of the best Czech conductors of his generation, but he has not yet introduced himself in Prague on an important stage.” At a festival concert, he will lead the Prague Philharmonia, and the soloist will be the young pianist Dongha Lee, laureate of the 2021 Prague Spring International Music Competition. “I am honoured to be playing in such a beautiful city with such a wonderful orchestra. Last year I played in Prague in an empty auditorium with the audience watching the stream on their video screens. This time, I’m looking forward to being able to play again before an audience in a packed hall!” says the Korean artist.
Marek Prášil (* 1986) studied clarinet playing at the University of Ostrava, and in parallel with his first engagement in the orchestra of the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre in Ostrava he began conducting studies at the conservatoire. He continued his conducting studies under Tomáš Hanus at the Janáček Academy of Performing Arts in Brno, where he is now enrolled in the doctoral programme. He got his first conducting opportunities soon thereafter, mainly in the field of musical theatre. Thanks to his teacher, he also had the opportunity to take part as an assistant for highly prestigious foreign opera productions such as Janáček’s Věc Makropulos (The Makropolus Affair, 2014) and Smetana’s Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride, 2018) at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, Strauss’s Rosenkavalier at the Welsh National Opera (2017), and Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta in Paris (2019). In 2015 he was awarded a Bayreuther Festspiele Scholarship. On the basis of previous successful cooperation, at the beginning of the 2020/21 season, Marek Prášil became the principal guest conductor of the South Czech Philharmonic in České Budějovice. His performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at his inaugural concert in that post is indicative of his ambitions as a conductor. In August 2016 he made his debut with the Sinfonie Orchester Biel Solothurn in Switzerland with two concerts, then in 2020 he led a performance of Dvořák’s Te Deum with the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra. He returned to Vilnius in 2022 to conduct the Lithuanian premiere of Janáček’s Sinfonietta with the same orchestra.
Marek Prášil has also guest conducted the Janáček Philharmonic in Ostrava, the Pilsen Philharmonic, and the Brno Philharmonic, and operatic engagements have taken to the State Theatre in Košice (Bellini’s La sonnambula) and the Silesian Theatre in Opava (Kálmán’s Countess Maritza). Marek Prášil’s discography includes recordings made during the Covid epidemic with the South Czech Philharmonic and violinist Roman Patočka, cellist Jiřím Bárta, and soprano Patricia Janečková. He also has mainly crossover projects to his credit—a CD titled Hana/Edith with the most famous chansons of Edith Piaf sung by the Thalia Award winner Hana Fialová and the Christmas CD Hallelujah with Martin Chodúr and the Janáček Philharmonic of Ostrava. At the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre in Ostrava, he recorded the Czech premiere of the chamber musical The Last Five Years. It is not without interest that Marek Prášil, an enthusiastic sportsman, has demonstrated his resourcefulness and preparedness not only in handling unexpected situations in the theatre, but also for many years as a volunteer rescue worker for the Czech Red Cross.
Seldom has the overall winner of the Prague Spring International Music Competition also won all of the special prizes, but last year the young South Korean pianist Dongha Lee so enchanted the jury that along with the title of laureate, he also came away with the Prize of the City of Prague, the Czech Radio Prize, and the prize for the best performance of a work by Jana Vöröšová commissioned for the competition. In the finals, the Prague Symphony Orchestra and the conductor Marek Šedivý accompanied Dongha Lee in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. In the journal Harmonie, Věroslav Němec wrote: “outstanding technique goes without saying (…) Dongha Lee obviously already had plenty of experience performing the Beethoven, and he played it with obvious ease”. In the same review, he also said: “Dongha Lee reminds one of an mature wine with all elements in balance.” “As soon as last year’s contest was over, I received invitations from many places”, says the pianist with apparent joy. He also has appearances booked at South Korea’s Arts Center, in Leipzig at the Gewandhaus, and in Kirchheimbolanden, Germany. “Korean musicians are trying to understand the spirit of European music”, says Dongha Lee. It was for this reason that he chose to study in Germany, first at the Hochschule für Musik in Hanover, where he graduated with honours from the studio of Ewa Kupiec. He is now a student of Arnulf von Arnim at the Academy of Music in Münster.
The programme begins with The Children’s Corner by Claude Debussy in a strikingly colourful orchestration by the composer’s friend André Caplet. The French composer dedicated the original popular suite of piano pieces to his daughter, who was known as Chouchou. “To my dear little Chouchou, with tender apologies from her father for what follows”, the composer wrote in the dedication. Marek Prášil says that it was his own fatherhood that led him to include the work on the programme of his Prague Spring Festival debut, confiding that “The inspiration for choosing this playful, childishly carefree work is the time I have been spending with my first son Matyáš.”
The high point of the first half of the concert will be a performance of the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The work was written at about the time of the opera The Marriage of Figaro. The concerto’s second movement in the unusual key of F sharp minor is some of the most beautiful and moving music the Salzburg native ever wrote. “I’m really glad to be appearing on stage with the Korean pianist Dongha Lee, winner of the Prague Spring Competition, for whom our collaboration will be his Prague Spring debut, apart from the competition”, says the conductor. “Personally, I think Mozart’s piano concertos are much more well-organized and complete than his piano sonatas”, says Dongha Lee, joyously adding that “among them, K.488 is a piece that many people like, and I think it is a work of depth, a piece that I have always wanted to play when I grow older. Fortunately, I have the opportunity to play it at a younger age than I thought.”
The second half of the concert brings a contrast. “It will be a celebration of nature and folklore in the purest sense of the word”, says Prášil. “We will perform the less familiar Suite Op. 3 by Leoš Janáček, a composer who is dear to my heart, and not only geographically, but also in essence. Fortunately, I have been encountering his music with growing frequency”, says the conductor. The composer from Hukvaldy wrote the work in 1891, but the premiere did not occur until 1928 in a joint performance by radio orchestras from Prague and Brno. The composer borrowed the music of the suite from his opera The Beginning of a Romance and from is Lachian Dances.
The climax of the evening will be the Concert Românesc (Romanian Concerto) by the great 20th-century composer György Ligeti. “It is one of his early works celebrating the composer’s ties to and intensive study of the folklore of Transylvania”, explains Prášil. Just like Ligeti’s predecessors Kodály and Bartók, the composer’s ties to folk music were very intense. He knew the music from his childhood, but it was much later that he returned to it for inspiration in the mature works he wrote in emigration in western Europe. The four-movement composition flows without interruption, and it is playful, mischievous, and wild all at once. In the fourth movement the composer calls for the French horn player to use natural tuning without valves. It is almost incredible to today’s listeners that such faint traces of modernism, actually based on folk music, led to the work, written in 1951, being banned in Budapest already while it was being rehearsed, causing the premiere to be postponed until 20 long years later. “I believe that the piece will make a brilliant conclusion to this festival concert”, says Marek Prášil.