Pioneering efforts

In a year rich with anniversaries, Prague Spring is observing no less than three in a single concert. Immediately following the two opening performances of Má vlast, the Prague Symphony Orchestra (FOK) will play a program of Jewish composers that celebrates the founding of the state of Israel (1948) and the centenary of Leonard Bernstein (born 1918). The third honoree is FOK founder Rudolf Pekárek, who established the orchestra in 1934 but was forced to flee communist oppression in Czechoslovakia in 1948.

To handle all this heavy lifting the festival is bringing back an old friend, American conductor Leonard Slatkin. Descended from Russian Jewish lineage and born into a musical family in Los Angeles – his father was a violinist and conductor, his mother a cellist – Slatkin, 73, has appeared with many of the worldʼs leading orchestras and at prestigious houses like the Metropolitan Opera and Opéra Bastille in Paris. He has held chief conductor positions on both sides of the Atlantic with high-profile orchestras like the BBC Symphony in London and National Symphony in Washington, DC, and his long list of awards includes six Grammys.

Slatkin is just as active offstage, the author of two books about the classical music business and founder of the National Conducting Institute at the Kennedy Center in Washington. He is uncommonly generous, volunteering to take a pay cut when the Detroit Symphony, where he is currently in his tenth and final year as music director, developed serious financial problems. And he has a sense of history that is a perfect match with the program.

“The creation of the state of Israel stands as one of the most significant events in the history of our world,” Slatkin says. “Clearly there remain both political and social difficulties today. But in terms of relation to the past, we all should be grateful that the country exists and its people continue to contribute so much to the world.”

From there, Slatkin draws a direct line to Bernstein, who had a powerful impact on his life. “Leonard had a strong connection to Israel, but similar to me, he was first and foremost an American,” Slatkin says. “And he was the very first conductor from the US to establish an international career. His work in composition, education, conducting and humanitarian causes was unparalleled. Without his pioneering efforts, none of us who are from America would have had the opportunity to be successful abroad.”

Bernstein will be represented in the program by his third symphony, Kaddish, a lengthy prayer for which he composed both the music and text. Slatkin knows the work well – he led the New York Philharmonic in a performance in November. Opening the concert is a lesser-known but equally impassioned piece, Schoenbergʼs A Survivor from Warsaw. Like Kaddish, it employs a narrator and chorus to make a powerful statement about Jewish identity and faith, though in a horrific context –  the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto during World War II.

“Usually I select the program, but the Prague Spring managers were very clear about wanting this pairing, which I think makes great sense,” Slatkin says. He added Mendelssohnʼs Violin concerto in E minor after consulting with the soloist, Julian Rachlin, who is this yearʼs Artist in Residence. “We felt that a standard work was needed to balance the program,” Slatkin says.

As for Pekárek, Slatkin did not know him personally, but came to appreciate his legacy through his work with FOK. “My debut with Maestro Pekárekʼs orchestra was almost 35 years ago, allowing me the opportunity to visit the Czech capital both during and after the Soviet occupation,” he says. “It was my privilege. He was clearly a visionary who provided employment for so many musicians during very difficult times.”

“Maestro” is a term that Slatkin does not use lightly. In the latest blog entry on his website, he ponders whether it should even be used in reference to himself. “I know it is a term of respect, but when people refer to me with that title, I am always taken aback,” he writes. “Toscanini, Furtwängler, Szell, Reiner and others, now those were maestros. It would be my wish that we put this term away for a while, unless the next Bernstein appears and sustains the greatness throughout his or her career.”

Many people in Prague would disagree. Slatkin has built a considerable fan base here conducting not only FOK, but the Czech Philharmonic, touring orchestras and concerts at four previous Prague Spring festivals dating back to 1977. This time will be both familiar and different.

“I love the city, its history and culture,” he says. “And the people are wonderful. Coming back to Prague Spring with this special and difficult program is an occasion that I am truly looking forward to.”

Author: Frank Kuznik