Conductor Jiří Bělohlávek dies aged 71

Jiří Bělohlávek, photo: ČTK

The esteemed Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek died on Thursday at the age of 71, according to a statement posted by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. The gifted musical maestro was a celebrated name in the world of classical music both at home and abroad.

Jiří Bělohlávek,  photo: ČTK
Leading Czech figures have been reacting to the death of conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, which was announced on Thursday. Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka noted that both the Czech Philharmonic and Czech culture in general had lost a major figure celebrated around the world. While culture minister Daniel Herman expressed his condolences to the conductor’s widow, stating that Bělohlávek was a truly treasured figure.

Jiří Bělohlávek was a conductor and musician whose varied career included serving twice as chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. His first stint ended in 1992 after just a year following a highly controversial and tumultuous reorganization of the orchestra. But, in 2012, Bělohlávek returned to this esteemed position, based in the opulent neo-renaissance Rudolfinum building in the centre of historic Prague, serving as chief conductor until his death.

Jiří Bělohlávek,  photo: ČTK
The conductor had been ill for some time, missing out on the busy Prague Spring musical event earlier this year, with conductor Petr Altrichter stepping in to fill his shoes. In its statement announcing the conductor’s passing, the Czech Philharmonic declined to go into details about the nature of the illness with which Bělohlávek had been struggling for a good number of months. Bělohlávek himself also regarded the nature of his illness as a private matter.

Jiří Bělohlávek was born in 1946 in Prague, and studied conducting – and also playing the violoncello – at the Prague Conservatory. In the early seventies he won a number of young conductor’s competitions, and then gained a long-term post at the Brno Philharmonic under principal conductor Jiří Waldhans. After that he became chief conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra, remaining in this post from 1977-1989.

After being booted out of the Czech Philharmonic in 1992, he founded the rival Prague Philharmonia, which is still going strong under its fourth chief conductor, the Frenchman Emmanuel Villaume.

Jiří Bělohlávek,  photo: ČTK
Bělohlávek also made an impact abroad, serving as the chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 2006-2012. He was even awarded a CBE by the Queen for services to music. Guest conducting stints also included the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and Deutsches Symphony Berlin.

In addition to conducting, Jiří Bělohlávek also taught music at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, and received an honorary doctorate from this institution in 2016.

The Czech Philharmonic praised Bělohlávek’s all-too-brief second stint as chief conductor, saying he had brought it considerable success and helped the orchestra to consolidate its reputation both at home and abroad. Bělohlávek was contracted to remain as chief conductor until 2022. His second stint with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra was, in the conductor’s own words, to be his final engagement. He is survived by a wife and two daughters.