61st Prague Spring Music Festival underway

Zdenek Macal

This Thursday saw the start of the famous Prague Spring Festival opened by the Czech Philharmonic performing works by J. B. Foerster, Otakar Ostrcil, and Antonin Dvorak, conducted by Zdenek Macal. The repertoire echoed the first historic concert in 1946, while Friday will see a performance of the more traditional "Ma Vlast" - Bedrich Smetana's "My Country". The festival - as always - is taking place at a number of important and architecturally stunning venues including Prague's Rudolfinum Concert Hall, the Estates Theatre, the National Theatre, and Prague's Municipal House.

Roman Belor
On Wednesday we caught up with Roman Belor, the head of Prague Spring, and asked him about some of this year's highlights.

"Certainly among the highlights we have to mention the concert with the Vienna Philharmonic with Leopold Hager: their 'comeback' to the festival is very important because they haven't been back for almost four decades, which is a shame. They will be playing compositions by Mozart and Mahler - authors more or less symbolising musical connections between the Czech lands and Austria.

Of course we are pleased to have back at the festival Edita Gruberova - an excellent soprano of Slovak origin.

I would like to mention that among the themes of the festival - like all promoter this year - we have Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Dmitri Shostakovich - but at the same time we have invited Slovakia to be a special guest, we are putting special emphasis on Slovak music. And, of course we have a number of special projects including a performance of work by Arnold Schönber, not often heard in Prague."

With so much to choose from - and even this just barely the tip of the iceberg - it was perhaps unfair to ask Roman Belor which performance he was personally looking forward to the most:

"It's hard to say because one can say that the concerts in a way are all partly my children that I have known from birth. Nevertheless, there are some that seem particularly important to me; one is certainly a recital by the excellent mezzo- soprano Bernarda Fink."

Leading up to the festival this week also saw the opening of a modest exhibition at Prague's Municipal House mapping the Prague Spring's long history. Featuring photos, descriptions, and some multi-media presentations outlining, for example, visits by greats in the past like Herbert von Karajan, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Leonard Bernstein - the exhibit area is open to visitors during the day and evenings, and offers an overview of the festival's development. The charismatic actor Petr Narozny officially opened the show, while violinist Vaclav Hudecek performed. Afterwards, Roman Belor talked briefly about the exhibition's aim:

"Its ambition is not to map in all details in the festival's history: that would be impossible in such a limited space. Nevertheless people may choose documentary films - fantastic concerts - from all decades in the history of the festival or read the panels. There are also a number of special displays: conductor Vaclav Talich's baton, for example, and costumes from Don Giovanni from the 60s - the symbol of theatrical successes at that time. It's a kind of impression: the number of foreign guests from the former 'West' alone confirms that the Prague Spring was always an important festival."

Pavel Klikar and Graham Melville-Mason,  photo: CTK
Also this week - on Thursday - a special awards ceremony related to the music festival was held at Prague's Old Town Hall. Organised by the Czech Music Council, the ceremony recognised the talents of Czech and English musicologists Pavel Klikar and Graham Melville-Mason.

On the occasion, Mr Melville-Mason - chairman of the British Dvorak Society and an international advisor to the Prague Spring Festival since 1990 - spoke to Radio Prague. We asked him how, over the years, the Prague Spring has changed, not least following the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989.

"It's changed of course from the pre-1989 days when it was very much a cultural shop window and used to a certain extent for propaganda purposes. But, it was even in those days - except for the Brno and Bratislava international festivals - the only time former western artists were invited to formal functions in old Czechoslovakia. So, there was - even then - a very strong mix, although slanted very heavily towards the eastern bloc countries. That was also very much reflected in the Prague Spring competition which goes on at the same time, where the juries were then very heavily weighted to the former bloc. A player entering from a western country really had to be extremely good to win any prizes.

Zdenek Macal
One of the first things that was done by the new festival director in 1990 was to change the rules of the competition and make it so that the jury was truly international and that the Czech jurors were not in a majority. And, this did a great deal to improve the competition on an international level of course.

As far as the festival goes it meant that after 1990 Czech and to a certain extent Slovak music this year remains very central to the festival and it is important that it does, in order to give it an individuality of its own. Since so many international festivals now begin to all look the same. It's important for Prague Spring to keep its strong Czech connections given the country's musical heritage, but of course there is a much wider spread of international musicians and repertoire appearing at the festival, compared to pre-1989."

For information on tickets and schedules visit www.festival.cz