Prague Spring gets under way
By: David Vaughan
The Czech Republic's annual celebration of classical music, the Prague Spring international festival got under way last Sunday, opening, as it does every year, with that most Czech of all compositions, Bedrich Smetana's Ma Vlast - My Country. The festival is an important event on the international festival circuit and attracts top musicians from all over the world, in a whirlwind of concerts over three weeks. I always try to find time to see a couple of them, and this year I'm particularly looking forward to hearing the wonderful German baritone Matthias Goerne, singing Schubert. I'll also be going along to the Prague Spring annual ritual of the Castle Guard and Czech Police Band performing in the garden of the Waldstein Palace. This year the band will be performing the work of no less than three Czech composers marking their centenaries this year, including the legendary composer of that most famous of all polkas, Skoda lasky - or The Beer Barrel Polka - Jaromir Vejvoda. In the years since the fall of communism, the Prague Spring has acquired a new lease of life, and the programme put together this year by the festival's new director Roman Belor, has been praised for its imaginativeness. I caught up with Mr Belor in his busy office just below Prague Castle on Monday, the morning after the festival's grand opening in Prague's Art-Nouveau Municipal House, and I began by asking him about the tradition of opening the Prague Spring with Smetana.
"It's a part of the festival tradition, this opening concert. The festival has started with Ma vlast since 1947. We like it. There was a certain crisis concerning this programming some years ago, because it was played for a long period by the same orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic. The rotation of conductors was not very intense; it started to be a bit boring, if I can use this sharp term. Nevertheless, I think that this tradition might be refreshed by inviting foreign orchestras, with an intense circulation of important conductors, and this is what the Prague Spring festival does since 1990, and it is much fresher and younger at the moment. Yesterday it was a Japanese conductor. It was a breakthrough because he was the first Asian conductor conducting the opening concert and this is the right way, I would say."
Mr Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi, photo: CTK
And he was conducting the Czech Philharmonic.
"Yes, Mr Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi was conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra."
You spoke about the need to bring some fresh blood and new energy to the festival. I notice that you've got some really quite unusual things. For example, one of the venues this year is a factory hall.
"Yes, this is an experimental concert of the ensemble "Mondschein", this is a Czech ensemble that is targeted on contemporary music and Mr Pudlak who is the artistic director and conductor of this ensemble put the concert in this post-industrial architecture, this is a site which will be refurbished for an international business centre or something like that. So it was cleaned, but just before the total refurbishment there will be a concert and the artists are hoping that there will be some interaction between contemporary music and this special space."
Do you think it's going to work?
"I hope so. It must work in a factory." (Laughs).
This year there's a special theme, isn't there - the 120th birthday of Igor Stravinsky.
"Yes. Stravinsky is, I would say, a challenging person for us, because of many reasons. Undoubtedly he was one of the geniuses of the 20th century. He was born in the 19th century. Nevertheless his work is closely connected with the development of the music of the 20th century. He belongs to the founders of modern music."
And he also influenced Czech composers considerably, didn't he - like Martinu for example.
" Undoubtedly, he influenced almost everybody in the 20th century, and also his life was inspiring for us, because his biography maps almost all the good and bad moments of the 20th century. He was born under the regime of the Tsar in pre-revolution Russia, he participated in the avant-garde movement in Paris before the First World War, and at the end of his life he experimented with jazz and he was in close contact with the important personalities in the United States in the early 60s, so his pace of life and the spectrum of his activities is fantastic, and you have mentioned also his connections with the former Czechoslovakia. He visited Prague and other places several times, he was in close contact with many important Czech personalities."
And I gather that in the early days of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia in the late 40s and early 50s Stravinsky's music was more or less taboo at the Prague Spring festival.
"You're right. Stravinsky appeared from time to time at the festival but he returned fully on Czechoslovak scenes after 1960, after the "melting ice" period in Soviet Russia. And some of his recordings made by Karel Ancerl, the Czech Philharmonic and other artists became, I would say, legendary products of the approach of Czech musicians to the work of Stravinsky. Undoubtedly there are some inter-actions. He was influenced by Slavonic music and we more or less belong to the same cultural space and he was a challenging person for two generations of Czech musicians."
And what do you think it is that makes the Prague Spring festival so special? It really does have a special place, I think on the international "circuit" of classical music festivals.
"I think that maybe the most important thing for the festival is the city where it is taking place, because Prague is an extremely interesting city. Prague is the product of a typical multi-cultural space and it is obvious that in a country that is on the one side small, but on the other extremely big as to its musical heritage, such a festival is bringing some interesting aspects. I think that we have a great musical heritage and the tradition of classical music in this country is maybe the strongest among all the arts and it is logical that we are having a festival as a way how to present how rich the Czech musical heritage is, not only as to compositions and composers but also to performing artists. But we are not local patriots. The festival is international and we are happy to have a certain way to compare the abilities of Czech artists with foreign ones, and we are presenting Czech music in logical connection with the world repertoire."
I was talking with the director of the Prague Spring festival, Roman Belor. The festival will be continuing in the Czech capital for the next two weeks, ending on Monday 3rd June. If you can't make it to any concerts this year, look out for the Prague Spring 2003. We'll be keeping you informed.