Despite the pandemic, over a mere two seasons Petr Popelka has become one of the most sought-after conductors of his generation. Double bassist of the celebrated Staatskapelle Dresden for many years, he is currently Principal Conductor of the Norwegian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Principal Guest Conductor of the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra in Ostrava, and Chief Conductor designate of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra. He will be joining the Prague Symphony Orchestra for his first appearance at the Prague Spring. The concert programme will bring together three composers who were born in different parts of what is now the Czech Republic. “A native of Brno, Erich Wolfgang Korngold is familiar today – both at home and abroad – chiefly for his inspired film music, yet he also wrote wonderful works for the concert platform, such as his Abschiedslieder,” says Prague Spring Programme Director Josef Třeštík. The work will be performed by world famous mezzo-soprano Gerhild Romberger. “I am very much looking forward to my first collaboration with Petr Popelka, a great colleague and musician of whom I have already heard so many positive things,” the soloist herself adds. “Korngold’s Songs of Farewell promise a musically enchanting, intimate and, at the same time, melancholic and beautiful evening – I can hardly wait!” she confides. “In my opinion Gerhild Romberger is unquestionably the ideal singer for this music,” states Petr Popelka ahead of their collaboration. “I first heard her in Mahler’s songs with Mariss Jansons. Her powers of expression and her voice are simply made for Korngold’s music,” he concludes. Listeners will also have the opportunity to gain an insight into the little known compositional legacy of Rafael Kubelík. “Kubelík is something of an institution in music,” says Popelka. “Both Jan and Rafael were world-class artists. Rafael is one of my musical role models. I say “musical”, rather than “conducting” – it’s his great musical universality I’m referring to.” The evening’s programme will culminate in the rarely performed tone poem Pan by Vítězslav Novák. “In Novák’s works – and especially in Pan – is a beauty that deserves to live,” states Popelka, explaining why he chose this work.
In the space of a few years Petr Popelka (1986) has established himself as one of the most inspirational young conductors not only in the Czech Republic but also in Europe. He was originally a double bass player, and from 2010 to 2019 he worked as deputy principal bass of the Staatskapelle Dresden, where he had the chance to perform under some of the world’s most distinguished conductors. He is currently Principal Conductor of the Norwegian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra in Ostrava. At the start of the 2022/23 season he will assume the post of Chief Conductor of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra. In the current season he is making guest appearances with such ensembles as the Staatskapelle Dresden, the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, the HR-Sinfonieorchester and Dresden’s Semperoper. Petr Popelka holds the Gstaad Menuhin Festival Academy’s Neeme Järvi Prize for the year 2017. His conducting mentors include Alan Gilbert, Vladimir Kiradjiev, Jaap van Zweden and Peter Eötvös. The conducting skills of Petr Popelka are also applauded by the critics. In a review for KlasikaPlus, Petr Veber described him as a “conducting phenomenon”: “He is well able to communicate with his players through his gaze and his gestures, he tirelessly and continually shapes and shifts the music – and, without really trying, he has a wonderful way with his audience as well, helping them to orient themselves in the music. You can’t take your eyes off him. He is exceptionally musical, he paints and crafts his gestures, he carefully leaves his musicians to play out the slightest emotions and the subtlest of sighs, he is swift to demonstrate and encourage, he leans in and steps forward with urgency. And then he glances behind him in surprise, now seeing how far away he has moved from his little railing…”
Gerhild Romberger is highly sought after on the concert platform. She focuses on song recitals, while her repertoire incorporates the major alto and mezzo-soprano parts in oratorios and concert works dating from the Baroque, Classicism and Romanticism to the 20th century. Antonín Dvořák also plays a significant role in her career. Key engagements in recent years have seen her appearing in concert with Manfred Honeck, who invited her to perform Mahler symphonies and Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. She has sung with the Berlin Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Herbert Blomstedt, and with the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester under Riccardo Chailly. Highlights of Gerhild Romberger’s current season include a song recital with violist Tabea Zimmermann at the Berlin Philharmonie or the role of Erda in a production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold in Amsterdam and Cologne, conducted by Kent Nagano.
Czech conductor Rafael Kubelík (1914–1996), the son of violin virtuoso Jan Kubelík, laid the foundations of the Prague Spring when he initiated its founding and, as Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, conducted the very first festival concert on 11 May 1946; the following day he led the principal Czech orchestra in a performance of Smetana’s My Country.
He studied the violin, conducting and composition, in which discipline he was the pupil of the brilliant theoretician Otakar Šín. He emigrated in 1948 and it wasn’t until 1990 that he returned to the Prague Spring where, amid the extraordinary atmosphere following the Velvet Revolution of November 1989, he conducted the opening concert of the festival. He gained international celebrity as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Opera, Covent Garden in London and, above all, as head of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. The legacy of his career is tangible to this day, as echoed in the words of Daniel Barenboim, who acknowledged it was thanks to Rafael Kubelík that he discovered Smetana’s My Country and Kubelík’s conception of the work still serves as a reference point for his own interpretation of the piece. Only a handful of Kubelík’s compositions have ever been performed – two of his four operas, for instance, while two violin concertos, a cello and a piano concerto are all awaiting rediscovery. Kubelík’s compositional output also includes chamber and orchestral pieces, a mass for children’s choir and a requiem. These works largely appeared over a relatively short period, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s; thereafter Kubelík remained fully focused on his commitments as a conductor.
The orchestral Sequences from 1975 is something of an exception in this context. Its bleak and restless atmosphere reflects the Normalisation era in Czechoslovakia, which Kubelík – a man of solid moral principles raised in Masaryk’s Republic – could only perceive from the other side of the Iron Curtain. He honoured Czech musical tradition via a quotation of the Hussite hymn Ktož jsú boží bojovníci (Ye who are warriors of God). “It fascinates me how little we know of Kubelík the composer, despite the great quality of his music,” confides conductor Petr Popelka. “As a composer he certainly moved with the times. Sequences is an immensely dramatic and challenging work.”
Erich Wolfgang Korngold was born in Brno in 1897 into a German-speaking Jewish family. As a child prodigy he was able to further his musical education in Vienna under the patronage of influential figures of the day – Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Alexander Zemlinsky. He gained recognition aged only eleven when a ballet he wrote was staged by the Vienna Court Opera. In the 1930s he began writing film music and became one of the most important composers in this field. He laid the foundations for the classic symphonic “Hollywood sound” and he was also the first composer to receive an Academy Award for his music. Korngold was in the United States working on the score for the film The Adventures of Robin Hood when the annexation of Austria began. His house in Vienna was confiscated by the Gestapo and the composer decided to remain in America. He, himself, apparently observed later on that the opportunity to write the music for Robin Hood had saved his life. In parallel with his film music he also wrote for the concert hall. His most noteworthy compositions include his Violin Concerto, Cello Concerto and his Symphony in F sharp. He died in Los Angeles in 1957.
Lieder des Abschieds Op. 14 (Four Songs of Farewell) takes us back to the time when the composer was twenty-three years old. He was enjoying great success in concert halls and opera houses. Nevertheless, the First World War had a profound impact on his sensitive psyche. The tenderness and sorrow of these songs also mirrored the composer’s private life and his love for Luzi von Sonnenthal, a young actress from a distinguished Viennese family of actors; while both sets of parents disapproved of their relationship, Luzi and Korngold were eventually married. In the 1920s new trends were prevailing in musical composition: Schönberg’s rationalism, New Objectivity, Futurism – in short, anti-Romanticism. Korngold’s songs, however, with their Mahleresque tone colour, melancholy and sweeping melodic arcs, still evoked the old, lost, pre-war realm of late Romanticism. In the first song, “Sterbelied” (Song of death), the composer creates a sense of nostalgia and isolation through his dissonant harmonies and anguished melodic lines. The text is the German translation of a poem by 19th century English poet Christina Rossetti. The second song “Dies eine kann mein Sehnen nimmer fassen” (The one thing my desire can never comprehend), written to a poem by Edith Ronsperger, is dark in texture and requires an operatic style from the singer. The two subsequent poems were commissioned by Korngold from the poet Ernst Lothar. “Mond so gehst du wieder auf” (Moon, once again you rise) is a richly textured prayer to the Moon, in which the composer creates a mood both mystical and profoundly sad. The final song “Gefasster Abschied” (Calm farewell) is based on an earlier composition by Korngold, “Österreischischer Soldatenabschied” (An Austrian soldier’s farewell). The cycle from 1921 was originally written for voice with piano accompaniment, but in 1924 he published an orchestrated version as well.
“Upon first hearing, Novák’s music may not sparkle with the kind of originality we find in Janáček, nor brim with the richness of Suk’s music, yet it is the product of a great spirit and a sincere and conscientious composer with remarkable invention – if not so ostentatious on the surface,” says conductor Petr Popelka, sharing his perspective on the work of Vítězslav Novák (1870-1949). Born in Kamenice nad Lipou, Novák was a prolific composer whose endeavours extended into virtually all the musical genres and forms. He wrote operas, ballets, piano, chamber and vocal opuses, and also symphonic works. His most important oeuvre includes the symphonic poems Of Eternal Longing, Toman and the Wood Nymph, Lady Godiva and the extensive, five-movement symphonic monument Pan (1912), which is rarely performed today, and this both in its orchestral version and its earlier piano version from 1910. “There are some who maintain that Pan in its orchestral form sounds too much like a piano piece that subsequently became an instrumental version, and that the original piano version sounds a bit like the piano reduction of an orchestral work,” says Popelka. “I don’t know if this opinion holds any weight. Nevertheless, it’s a composition of unusual depth, verve and resourceful tone colour, and it delights listeners every time they hear it. Pan is undeniably one of Novák’s masterpieces,” he adds. The title of the work refers to the Greek god of forests, fields and flocks. The names of the individual parts (I. Prologue – II. Mountains – III. The Sea – IV. The Forest – V. Woman) might suggest that Novák’s sentiments come close to pantheism. The natural elements provided him with inspiration to weave a fabric of colourful and evocative music. Of all his compositions, Pan is most likely to invite comparison with Debussy. Novák’s musical idiom, however, manifests many other stimuli; here we will detect echoes of music by his teacher Antonín Dvořák and also anticipations of Janáček.