Prague Spring 2018 – Evaluation of the Festival

Prague Spring 2018 Celebrates the 100th Anniversary of the Founding of Czechoslovakia

The public and music critics reacted enthusiastically to the guest appearances by foreign artists, with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, and the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich taking the lead.

The festival’s artist-in-residence Julian Rachlin presented the full breadth of his talents at four festival concerts – as a violinist, a violist, a superb player of chamber music, and a conductor.

The concert of the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner was a sensation, as was the return of one of the most prominent figures of the world of authentic interpretation of early music, Jordi Savall. “For several decades, the Bachian creations of the conductor John Eliot Gardiner and his ensembles have been a constant, just like projects such as Jerusalem, for which Jordi Savall is responsible,” says the critic Věra Drápelová, adding: “At every guest appearance with his Budapest Festival Orchestra, the Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer shows what many years of work with musicians can mean. Their performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 was the festival’s orchestral climax, equalled only by the performance of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam with the conductor Daniele Gatti. The Czech Philharmonic had its stellar moment right at the beginning, when it saw perfectly eye to eye with the conductor Tomáš Netopil, whose Má vlast will go down as the essence of light, poetic Romanticism. There were pleasant reminiscences of Leonard Bernstein – the encounter with musical theatre singers from London was something special, and it showed that the best of that genre is also dignified enough for Prague Spring.”

 

The festival’s main theme was celebrating the 100th anniversary of Czech statehood. “Our goal was to offer a comprehensive perspective on the whole period of the modern state and to step confidently into the future, which has always been and will continue to be driven by today’s composers and young performers – it is also for this reason that we gave a great deal of room to contemporary Czech composers,” said the festival director Roman Bělor.

Věra Drápelová gave her appraisal of this on the pages of the newspaper MF DNES: “All kinds of events are already taking place in honour of the centennial, and there is certainly more to come this year, such as a water show by fire-fighters on the Vltava River in Prague, and why not, after all. But one naturally expects something more thoughtful from leading cultural institutions. This year, Prague Spring worked the centennial into the programming through compositions by Czech and Slovak contemporary composers, many of which were directly commissioned by the festival. They assuredly could have gone down an easier path, but it is to the festival’s honour that it did not do so. Whatever the fates of the new works may turn out to be, their composers including Marko Ivanović, Michal Nejtek, Luboš Mrkvička, and others certainly offered stimulation for discussion, and that is no small achievement.”

It is important to remember that it was at the initiative of the festival organisers that the compositions commissioned by the festival were give their world premieres by foreign ensembles – the Warsaw Philharmonic gave a perfect account of a new work by Michal Nejtek, and in a work by Luboš Mrkvička, the famed ensemble Klangforum Wien amazed the audience with the lightness and naturalness of its performance of the enormously difficult parts.

Many reviewers highlighted this fact; for example, Martin Zvěřina wrote the following on the pages of the newspaper Lidové noviny: “For this year’s festival, Prague Spring commissioned original works from two composers, and it entrusted their premieres to renowned ensembles, enlivening the dramaturgy while also giving the composers an opportunity. And if the orchestras keep the works in their repertoire, audiences in other countries will also get to hear them. From this perspective, such a world premiere at Prague Spring gives composers a real chance. We hope the commissions of new works will become an integral part of the festival, just like Má vlast.”

The Czechoslovak accent was also reflected in the programmes of the opening and closing concerts. The Czech Philharmonic played Má vlast wonderfully under the baton of Tomáš Netopil, while the closing concert belonged to the Slovak Philharmonic with its new chief conductor James Judd. The programme featured an interesting dialogue between two classics of Czech and Slovak twentieth-century music – Eugen Suchoň and Leoš Janáček. For the shaping of Slovak cultural identity, Suchoň’s Psalm of the Subcarpathian Land has been of similar importance in many ways to Má vlast for Czech identity. The composing of Janáček’s Sinfonietta dates directly from the first decade of Czechoslovakia’s existence.

Reviewers also rated the overall course of this year’s festival very positively. According to the final report published by the Czech News Agency (ČTK): “The music critics commended the opening concert played by the Czech Philharmonic under the baton of Tomáš Netopil, and they had words of praise for the appearances by Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Overall, they regard this year’s festival as a success.”

“I think it was a good idea to entrust Má vlast to Tomáš Netopil, who turned it into a beautifully fresh and youthful composition. It was romantic in the best sense of the word,” says Věra Drápelová, the music critic for the newspaper MF DNES. “Some of the concerts could be described as safe bets, as was the case with the early music ensembles the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists under the direction of their founder Sir John Eliot Gardiner, and with Jordi Savall’s project Jerusalem. Of course, with them it is invariable that they always are so inspirational that every encounter with them is an experience,” added Ms. Drápelová.

Hana Jarolímková, the editor-in-chief of the journal Hudební rozhledy (Musical Perspectives), noted that Prague Spring did not forget its Weekend of Chamber Music or the popular nocturne and matinee concerts. She mentioned the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra from Amsterdam, the Tonhalle Orchestra from Zürich, the performance Leif Ove Andsnes in Britten’s Piano Concerto, Op. 13, and the Budapest Festival Orchestra as being among her great experiences at the festival. Jarolímková also had words of praise for the appearance by the Warsaw Philharmonic. “At this year’s festival, we were treated to more than one programming delicacy,” said Hana Jarolímková in conclusion.

According to the music journalist Tomáš Hejzlar, Prague Spring is striving for more than just superficial effect. “To the contrary, through its continuous, carefully planned dramaturgy of content and performers, it creates thematic arches, something that should be a priority for achieving a seamless event,” says Mr. Hejzlar.

According to Alena Sojková from Týdeník Rozhlas (Radio Weekly): “Not even the sometimes overheard comments about the festival being a bit conservative hold water this year: appearances by Klangforum Wien, Prague Modern, and the Epoque Quartet, the performance of Britten’s Piano Concerto played by Leif Ove Andsnes, music by Szymanowski, Kabeláč, Slavický, Novák, Adámek, Smolka, and also newly commissioned works (Michal Nejtek) and premieres (Marko Ivanović) – all of this shows that the festival does not withdraw into a conservative shell.”

What Michaela Vostřelová, the deputy editor-in-chief of the journal Harmonie, appreciated most at this year’s Prague Spring was the quantity of new Czech music heard at the festival. “The big festivals abroad support contemporary as a matter of course by commissioning and performing new compositions. I believe that Prague Spring has convinced its audiences that discovering new music can be just as exciting as comparing different conceptions of a Dvořák symphony heard a hundred times before,” Vostřelová asserts.

In a review in the newspaper Lidové noviny by Jindřich Bálek, he contemplates in his final evaluation: “I am not among those who criticise the festival for conservative programming – these days, being conservative often takes a bit of courage. The format of a traditional concert where people sit and listen with concentration in today’s multimedia age is not as outdated as is sometimes said. The present-day listener is less focused and more confused, and in the end, we are grateful for every authentic and artistically credible fixed point, and that is what Prague Spring continues to be.”