9.1.2020, Boris Klepal
“With respect to the fulfilment of the festival’s mission, we have things taken care of for the next few years,” says the programme director of the Academy of Classical Music Jan Simon. The future activities of the Academy of Classical Music are the main topic of the interview, in which we also touched on this year’s Dvořák Prague Festival. “With respect to the fulfilment of the festival’s mission, we have things taken care of for the next few years,” says the programme director of the Academy of Classical
How satisfied were you with this year’s Dvořák Prague Festival?
The festival affirmed its growing quality with respect to programming and its societal framework. One would have a hard time finding any programme at the festival that merely satisfied the expectations for the quantity of music. The concerts featured standard programming consisting of popular works – this is something very important to those members of the public who are not avid fans, but want to attend an important socio-cultural event. At the same time, however, we also presented events that delved deeper, including the shining example of the King and Collier project and also the performances of Dvořák’s cello concertos. This involved the lesser-known first concerto, which we presented in its original version with piano and in an orchestral version by Jarmil Burghauser. It was adapted by the cellist Tomáš Jamník, who dealt with this matter in his doctoral dissertation.
The aspect of this year’s festival that perhaps garnered the most praise was the chamber music series with the violinist Gil Shaham as its curator…
Gil Shaham’s activities throughout the festival brought enormous satisfaction for both us and the public. I regard him as an absolutely remarkable figure both as an artist and as a person. He is characterised by tremendous skill and remarkable modesty as well as by an awareness of everything that he would still like to be able to do. This causes him to be exceedingly cooperative and grateful that he has the opportunity to communicate with the public. To me, he is the typical example of an artist who does not take the arts as a profession, but rather as a mission, and dialogue is what comes first with him.This was apparent at the chamber music concerts, when he even agreed with Josef Špaček to switch places between first and second violin, which is something that is not usual with stars in his category. This did not in the least diminish Shaham’s intensity of commitment to the programme, and the result was absolutely harmonious. I think that was one of the best chamber music concerts we have had in the last few years. Zubin Mehta also graced the festival with his presence, and my reaction to his concert with the Israel Philharmonic was coloured by my respect for him as a man and a legend in the best sense of the word.
DO NOT TAKE THE NAME DVOŘÁK IN VAIN.
So let’s move on from the past and look at things in the future. For the approaching seasons of the Dvořák Prague Festival, you bear full responsibility as the programme director of the Academy of Classical Music. What do you wish to bring to the festival, which is functioning, as no one is disputing?
Thanks to my predecessor, the festival began with the principle that it would not take Dvořák’s name in vain by just using it as label. The most basic, significant thing is the Dvořák Collection – the idea of the integral performing of Dvořák’s works. Someone might object that a composer whose music is played worldwide does not need such systematic care, but as proof that this is not the case, there are performances of works that have been either neglected or entirely forgotten. For example, there was the performance of Dvořák’s first opera Alfred in 2014, and this year there was a performance of the first musical setting of King and Collier – a unique phenomenon in the worldwide operatic literature, where the composer created two completely different operas using an identical text. A year ago, I asked your predecessor Marek Vrabec what would happen once the festival runs out of major works by Dvořák… Dvořák’s oeuvre is tremendously vast, and history has always been able to filter out what would become part of the concert repertoire. But there are still a number of works that have not won this attention, and our task is to discover the causes for this. That leads us to return to neglected works, of which there are quite a few. In the past, the whole Dvořák Collection focused on the most spectacular subject matter, meaning the works for orchestra or for voices with instrumental accompaniment. Also receiving attention, if not quite as systematically, was his chamber music, whether his piano trios, piano quartets, songs, and choral music, and then there is the very important category of string quartets. That’s going to be a task that is not dissimilar to working on King and Collier, because of the fourteen string quartets plus other music for quartet; there are five or six pieces that are played frequently, while there are a number of works that have not found a place in the standard repertoire. There are a few complete sets of recordings, but these remain within the walls of the recording studio, and the music is not finding its way into the concert hall. And in saying this, I wish to refute any concerns that the Dvořák Prague Festival is running out of repertoire as far as the Dvořák Collection is concerned.
How long will it take for the festival to deal systematically with Dvořák’s chamber music?
In order to present his complete chamber music in an acceptable and palatable manner, we have
outlined a programme for at least another five or six years. I don’t want to cram all that music into a single season, firstly because it would drive away our audience, and not even we, the organisers, would enjoy that. The important thing will be putting the pieces into their historical context, and some of them will clearly need some verbal explanation. One needs to find the right format, so the audience can also begin to perceive these works as a full-fledged part of Dvořák’s legacy. For the Dvořák Collection, this is the greatest task, and it gives me the feeling of certainty that with respect to the fulfilment of the festival’s mission, we have things taken care of for the next few years.
Dvořák’s pupils and successors are also a part of his story. Do you want to devote yourself systematically to their music as well?
The works of Josef Suk are beginning to appear on our programmes, and this is something that I managed to implement beginning with last year’s festival. This is the most logical artistic and personal line to follow in relation to Dvořák. From Suk, we can move on to Janáček and Martinů, then on to the presentation of other Czech composers who have been relatively neglected, like Vítězslav Novák, Ostrčil, Kovařovic… with all of them, one finds music that is potentially of worldwide interest. I would also like to make some more demanding works available to the audience that has taken shape around the festival. This is certainly possible, as was shown by the performance of Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps with the clarinettist Sharon Kam, which got an amazing response. This confirms my opinion that one need not stick to a conservative Classical and Romantic repertoire.
NEW ENERGY FOR THE CONCERTINO PRAGA COMPETITION
The Academy of Classical Music, which presents the Dvořák Prague Festival, has also announced its expansion into other activities – how is that going?
The Academy of Classical Music has also undertaken to invest in future generations and their education – both of performers and of listeners, which we also need. This will be reflected in the programming for next season by the participation of the Dvořák Prague Youth Philharmonic, a student orchestra led by Tomáš Netopil. There has also been a redefining of the very traditional Concertino Praga competition, which was founded by Czechoslovak Radio back in 1966. Unfortunately, with developments since the overthrow of the totalitarian regime, when radio broadcasting in the former Soviet bloc ceased to operate under orders from centralised management, the situation has become complicated for Concertino. In addition, the countries to the west of us do not have a system of centrally managed public broadcasters. Germany has several very independent stations, although they operate under the auspices of the ARD, and the BBC system is not centralised either. It is also for this reason that we want to relax the rules for applicants to the Concertino Praga competitions, although the premise of a radio competition and of cooperation with Czech Radio and with the European Broadcasting Union remains in place. But the competition needs to be opened up even more.
What will remain from the old Concertino competition, and what changes will your involvement with the competition bring?
What will remain is the preliminary selection of contestants from recordings, but it has turned out several times in the past that what works on a recording does not necessarily work live. This led me to decide that the finals will take place live, and only then will the finalists win their laurels. They will have to earn them in front of such a jury and in such a context as will demonstrate that their talent is sufficiently great. In terms of not only musical skill, but also mental toughness, which is another part of the life of a concert performer. The final round will be part of the standard framework of the festival programme as part of a series called “For the Future”. What sort of jury will sufficiently test the competitors’ mental toughness? Among the jury members will be Maxim Vengerov, Augustin Hadelich, Lukáš Vondráček, David Geringas, Francois Leleux, Walter Auer, and Daniel Otensammer – this will put pressure on the competitors, but it means motivation as well, when they are able to show themselves to such a jury. They will also be presenting themselves on the same stage where Zubin Mehta, the Czech Philharmonic with Maestro Bychkov, the Capuçon brothers, and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and Neeme Järvi have appeared. This gives the competition a completely different dimension. Even more importantly, we have decided to award stipends to the laureates. In the past, they were awarded a diploma and a chance to make a recording with Czech Radio, and this will remain, but now they will have an open virtual account at the Academy of Classical Music and will be able to use the funds for their further development by taking part in master classes or long-term studies. In this way, we will take part in the journey of young musicians towards a real professional career.
A TRAINING CENTRE FOR ELITE MUSICIANS
Your plans are reminiscent of training centres for top sports clubs…
There are plenty of parallels between the performing arts at the highest level and elite sports, and for that reason I have lots of friends who are athletes. There are also analogies with respect to both the preparations and the magic of the moment, when there is no turning back. You can’t turn off the red light like in the studio and start over. Somehow, you always just have to get through it and play to the end. In sports, there is more tolerance for this than in the performing arts – you win sixteen times and lose eight times, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In the arts, there is surprisingly little tolerance for this: one works long and hard to earn a good reputation, and it’s tough to get to the top, but it only takes two or three bad concerts, and concert organisers won’t call you anymore. These are also things one has to take into account when doing mental preparation, and our educational projects should reflect this, whether we are talking about the Youth Philharmonic, the Concertino Praga competition or the Hudební učiliště Antonína Dvořáka at the Prague Conservatoire.
Do you want to add things to the training of young musicians that are not in the curriculum?
Young people have to know that it’s not just about spending eight hours a day with their instrument, but also a matter of mental preparation, proper diet, physical condition, and maximum stamina in general. Few laypeople are able to understand that elite performing on stage is just as much of a physical as a mental strain – it is significant that a pianist or a conductor can sweat as much as two litres of fluid during a concert. All of this has to be taken into account and grasped comprehensively. And I’m glad that beginning in 2020 the Dvořák Prague Festival will be giving the public the opportunity of witnessing instruction as part of preparations for Dvořák’s Violin Concerto. This is the Concert Master Class project, which will be led by Maxim Vengerov. Three young violinists will each prepare one movement of Dvořák’s Violin Concerto, and Vengerov will give them positive mentoring right on stage in front of the public. The audience will see that a performance that seems perfect at first glance can be improved and that the quality gets better.
So you will be testing the mental toughness of students and competitors not only in front of a jury, but also before the public?
There will be something similar with the presentation of Concertino Praga, subjecting the four candidates who advance to the finals to a trial by fire. Something similar will be brought to Prague by the Youth Philharmonic from rehearsals of the Orchestral Academy at the Summer Music Academy in Kroměříž. We want the Youth Philharmonic to present the fruits of its labour not only in Prague, but to serve as an ambassador to other presenters in this country and abroad. We are at the starting line for the whole project, although there are already academies functioning on the basis of absolutely professional training with certain Czech orchestras. But this involves people who have basically finished their university studies, who are substituting for regular players with stable orchestras.
Shouldn’t musicians be able to play in an orchestra once they finish school?
About orchestral playing, it can be said in general that it is the field of instruction to which the least attention is paid at Czech music schools. At the conservatoires and academies, students are trained either as soloists or as chamber music players. Meanwhile, orchestra playing is treated as something marginal and as a necessary evil. When the outstanding German cellist Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt – now a professor in Weimar and Berlin and formerly the principal cellist of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra – came to study at the Julliard School, in spite of his successes in competitions, they put him on the third desk of the cello section in the school orchestra, and he dared not fail to attend, or he would not have earned credit for the class. In this way, the students gain musical experience, and their education is comprehensive. So it’s just unthinkable to have university graduates coming to an orchestra, and when asked to play the fugue in
Smetana’s tone poem From Bohemia’s Woods and Meadows, which is a standard part of the Czech repertoire, for them to have no idea what the tempo is supposed to be. This might be an extreme example, but when I was the executive director of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, this was something I witnessed.
Is the focus of the Academy of Classical Music going to get too diffuse, begin spread out in so many directions?
We want all of our projects, including the Antonín Dvořák Prize, to be spread regularly over the entire year. These are all independent projects, but the flagship is and always will be the Dvořák Prague Festival as a first-class exhibition of the art of musical performance. We will be pleased if the synergy of all of these projects will allow their presentation at the Dvořák Prague Festival.
A TRADITIONAL BRAND WITH CONTEMPORARY CONTENT
Concertino Praga has undeniable value as a proven brand, although it has been on a bit of a decline in recent years. Still, it is a rather large asset. How willing was Czech Radio to allow you to become involved?
Czech Radio is primarily an institution that is supposed to create programming. In 1966, when the founders of the competition decided with Helena Karásková and Viktor Kalabis to create an event in support of young performers and were able to join forces with other broadcasting stations, that was an enormously worthy achievement, and it also got plenty of airtime. Also, back then Czechoslovak Radio was not monitored so strictly about expenditures – today they watch spending very carefully. The structure of radio broadcasting is also changing significantly. The volume of funding resources has remained the same because the concession fees have not been changed for years, so if you have ambitions for a competition with an international reach, you have to make investments not only in the organisation itself, but also in communications and marketing. There just was not that much potential for further development at Czech Radio, so when I approached the director of Czech Radio René Zavoral with our plans, he welcomed our offer.
Isn’t that just selling public property into private hands?
There appeared a certain suspicion that a private organisation was trying to “steal” Czech Radio’s “crown jewels”, but that was not the intent. If we were to lose Czech Radio as a partner, we would also lose its communications potential, including its relationship with the European Broadcasting Union. And then you consider the wealth of history of Concertino and look at the list of laureates with names like Christian Tetzlaff, Isabelle Faust, Zoltán Kocsis, and even the conductor Andris Nelsons who won as a trumpet player when he was twelve years old. It is significant that the last great laureates, Radek Baborák and Ivo Kahánek, date back to ca. 1989. I think one can take advantage of the positive things Czech Radio has to offer, and this can bring good results for everyone.
What are the main changes being made to the competition system at you initiative?
For Concertino, we have done away with compulsory compositions, and instead we have made a list of recommended repertoire that is quite extensive, and it is dominated by Czech composers. We have chosen works of appropriate difficulty, but we don’t want to underestimate the competitors. We want to find truly exceptional talents, whether they play the piano, violin, bassoon, or whatever else.
Will the competitors be rated by individual instruments or all together?
Concertino used to be a kind of hybrid, in which the competitors were compared in groups, and in such a system, I probably would not dare compare a flautist with a horn player. And it absolutely made no sense to compare a piano with a violin or cello, and on top of that there was even guitar and harp. Anyway, that would have been a step in the direction of multi-instrumentalism. The founders also called the competition “Concertino” (“little concert” – editor’s note), so it was clear that it really was intended for very young talents. I remember when I was very young, twelve years old, I was sitting in front of the television screen watching my colleague Igor Ardašev, who was the same age, who played Liszt’s Piano Concerto at the Rudolfinum in a way that made my jaw drop. My first reaction was that I would forget all about playing piano, but my second was that I went to begin practising. This effect was diminished when they began raising the age limit for competitors. Once musicians are seventeen, are able to play their instrument, and have high musical ambitions, they start thinking about how to get into the Chopin Competition in Warsaw, the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, the Kreisler Competition in Vienna etc. Concertino then “suffers” from the participation of very able conservatory students, and there is also the problem of what to do when a truly talented eleven-year-old candidate shows up among them. Then it is very difficult to compare performances even on an anonymous recording, where a seventeen-year-old player exhibits a certain degree of professionalism. You don’t know what to prioritise – a certain orderliness of playing or spontaneity. And you don’t even know whether that spontaneity might be coming from a seventeen-year-old player. I don’t care whether we find an extraordinary saxophonist or pianist, but we want to find candidates who are gifted as musicians and human beings – I prefer to call them younger colleagues.
What will the age limits be for competitors under the new rules?
For keyboard instruments and strings, the age limit will be fifteen, and for winds it will be sixteen because of the physiological demands. But when you look back, the oboist Jana Brožková and the French horn player Radek Baborák won when they were fifteen. Anyone who claims that wind players are not yet ready at fifteen is making excuses. And the great majority of laureates before 1989 were between thirteen and fourteen years old. These days, agencies are overflowing with talented children, and we’re talking about the age group from ten to thirteen, so there really is potential there. Of course, there is no guarantee that in the very first year you will find some future Lang Lang. But you have to keep on loudly promoting the existence of this competition, because we are also working with a number of foreign partners. And the best thing we can do for this competition is get it up to the level of the standard programme of the Dvořák Prague Festival.
A SCHOOL FOR YOUNG SOLOISTS AND ORCHESTRAL PLAYERS
Concertino Praga has many years of tradition, but in the case of the Summer Music Academy in Kroměříž, you have joined in an undertaking that is just getting started. We joined forces with the Summer Music Academy in Kroměříž in its second year.
It was based on individual courses on solo playing, and Tomáš Netopil – the artistic director and a native of Kroměříž – has added some less common fields, so this year there was also a course for répétiteurs – piano accompanists for singers. Abroad, the role of répétiteur is in great demand, and there is a severe shortage of them. Basically, they are also vocal coaches who help singers learn their roles and are able to give advice on vocal technique. There are many pianists who are unable to accompany singers, and most of them would not be able to perform the role of a répétiteur. Besides these special features, I was also excited about their enthusiastic and professional staff, and I thought to myself, it would be better to look for synergies instead of founding something new. And another thing is the city Kroměříž – it’s an inspiring environment. Everything you would want is nearby, and I also think that not everything needs to take place in Prague. What can participants in the orchestral programme of the Kroměříž Academy expect? The people who realise their careers as top orchestral players will find a totally professional approach to the preparing of performances. For this reason, we have engaged top players from the Czech Philharmonic, which is the best orchestra in this country. This will also strengthen the ties between the Dvořák Prague Festival and the Czech Philharmonic as the festival’s orchestra-in-residence, as well as the choice of Tomáš Netopil, who is a permanent guest conductor of the orchestra. In the course of a week, we will be offering participants at the Kroměříž Academy more than thirty-five hours of orchestral instruction, and that’s quite a lot. At the same time, the time they spend there should be enjoyable, and a performance at the Dvořák Prague Festival will be the reward for their efforts.