Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

Orchestra

Biography

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Why does the Czech Philharmonic still sound so different?
“One reason is that this hall requires a special sort of playing. The other,more important one is that all or 99 per cent of our musicians are Czech and
trained here. So that’s the source of our special sound and we are trying to keep it.”
Jiří Bělohlávek, Chief Conductor 2012-2017
in conversation with The Times, 2 April 2016

The 121 year-old Czech Philharmonic gave its first concert ? an all Dvořák programme which included the world première of his Biblical Songs, Nos. 1-5 conducted by the composer himself - in the famed Rudolfinum Hall on 4 January 1896. Acknowledged for its definitive interpretations of Czech composers, whose music the Czech Philharmonic has championed since its formation, the Orchestra is also recognised for the special history it has with the music of Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Mahler, who conducted the Orchestra in the world première of his Symphony No. 7 in Prague in 1908.
The Czech Philharmonic’s extraordinary and proud history reflects both its location at the very heart of Europe and the Czech Republic’s turbulent political history, for which Smetana’s Má vlast (My Homeland) has become a potent symbol. The Orchestra gave its first full rendition of Má vlast in a brewery in Smíchov in 1901 and, in 1929, under its then Chief Conductor Václav Talich, it was the first work that the Orchestra committed to disc, in a recording that took 10 separate records. During the Nazi occupation, when Goebbels demanded that the Orchestra perform in Berlin and Dresden, Talich put the entire Má vlast on the programme as an act of defiance.
Four decades later in 1990, Má vlast was the work chosen by Kubelík to celebrate Czechoslovakia’s first free elections.

Throughout the Orchestra’s history, two elements have remained at the core of its ethos: its championing of Czech composers and its belief in music’s power to change lives. Defined from its inauguration as ‘an organisation for the enhancement of musical art in Prague, and a pension organisation for the members of the National Theatre Orchestra in Prague, its widows and orphans’, the proceeds from the four concerts that it performed each year helped to fund members of the orchestra who could no longer play, as well as the immediate survivors of deceased musicians.
As early as the 1920’s, Václav Talich (Chief Conductor 1919-1941) pioneered concerts for workers, young people and other voluntary organisations including the Red Cross, the Czechoslovak Sokol and the Union of Slavic Women and gave three benefit concerts for Russian, Austrian and German orchestral players in 1923. The philosophy continues today, and is every bit as vibrant. A comprehensive education strategy engages with more than 400 schools, bringing children of all ages ? some of whom travel up to four hours - to hear concerts and participate in masterclasses in the Rudolfinum. The programme extends to university students and a recently launched Czech Philharmonic’s Orchestral Academy; together with an inspirational summer programme that collaborates with Romany communities in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

In the early years of his tenure Václav Talich led the Orchestra through a detailed inventory of Czech music, including the world premières of
Martinů’s Czech Rhapsody (1919); Martinů’s Half Time (1924); Janáček’s Sinfonietta (1926); and the Prague première of Janáček’s Taras Bulba
(1924). Rafael Kubelík was also a champion of Martinů’s music and Czech Philharmonic/Biography: 2 premièred Field Mass (1946) and Symphony No. 5 (1947), while Karel Ančerl conducted the première of Martinů’s Symphony No. 6 and Fantaisies symphoniques (1956).

Prague has long been favoured by composers, not least Mozart who, following performances of Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, travelled the 250km journey from Vienna to conduct the first performance of La Clemenza di Tito in 1791. Beethoven also made two trips to Prague in 1796, returning two years later to perform the première of his Piano Concerto No. 1. He also travelled to the spa town of Teplitz (now Templice), where he composed his Seventh Symphony. Mahler’s ties were even deeper. He was born in the Bohemian village of Kaliště, now part of the Czech Republic, and returned aged 23 to conduct the Royal Municipal Theatre in Moravia. He later conducted the Neues Deutsches Theatre in Prague before giving the world première of his Symphony No. 7 with the Czech Philharmonic.

Mahler, however, was not the first non-Czech composer to conduct the Czech Philharmonic. Edward Grieg conducted the Orchestra in 1906; Stravinsky
performed his Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra under Václav Talich in 1930; Leonard Bernstein conducted the European première of Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3 at the Prague Spring in 1947; Arthur Honegger conducted a concert of his own music in 1949; Darius Milhaud gave the première of his Music for Prague at the Prague Spring Festival in 1966; and, in 1996, Krzysztof Penderecki conducted the première of his Concerto for Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra.

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