Czech international conductor says “orchestra is the richest musical instrument”

Jakub Hrůša, photo: archive of London Philharmonia

Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša was recently appointed one of the two principal guest conductors at London's Philharmonia Orchestra. Simultaneously, Jakub Hrůša is the Chief Conductor of Bamberg Symphony, Permanent Guest Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic and Principal Guest Conductor of Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. I contacted him by phone in Paris, where he is currently on tour and first asked him when he became involved with music:

Jakub Hrůša,  photo: Andreas Herzau
“As much as I know, I showed some signs of talent in the kindergarten, so my parents sent me to a school specialised in music.

I remember having music present in my classes every day. So I considered music an integral part of my life, but I didn’t consider it my future profession.

“When I entered the grammar school I was thinking of becoming a lawyer, doctor or businessman, I really didn’t have a clue. But at that point, I was about 14 or 15, I slowly realised that music must be more than just a hobby, and I started to think seriously about what kind of musical profession I could develop.

“Conducting appeared to be the most natural choice, because of my nature, my interests and my love of orchestras and since than I entered a very straight forward path to conducting and I am still on that path now.”

What do you love most about your profession?

“First of all, it is being constantly in touch with art in a very complex way. I don’t have to limit myself to just one instrument. The orchestra is probably the richest musical instrument which exists. I also love learning new things all the time and conducting is one of the professions which demands from you to learn so much all the time. So I basically learn new music every day or learn music that I know already in a different way.

“What I also love about conducting, it is a personal thing, is a constant touch with other people. I am a little evasive by nature but the profession actually stimulates me to be in touch with people of completely different mentalities and characters and abilities. I didn’t know as a child that that would be so interesting.

“And in the end, the concert itself, the moment of performing is the most exciting thing. The level of how much the energy is streamed from one side of the stage to another, to the audience and back from the audience, is something very powerful and very healthy. By the way, I also like the fact that I have physical movement all the time.”

At the moment you are working with several different orchestras. How do you manage to work with each of them? I assume you have to approach each of them very differently.

Jakub Hrůša,  photo: archive of Czech Philharmonic
“That’s right but it’s not in a way different from approaching various people in your life. There are orchestras with which you feel most naturally and then orchestras where you need to apply more psychology or diplomacy. Orchestras are always full of people of dozens of opinions and your job is to unify those opinions and bring them into harmony.

“That is a task which you can do successfully with people with whom you are at ease and also, if you are a professional, also with people with whom you don’t have so much in common. Conducting, in spite of being work of art, despite the fact that it always needs fantasy and inspiration and creativity it is also a job.

“One has to learn how to communicate with people and ultimately how to make them happy. Sometimes it is really easy. And this is part of what I like about conducting. I like seeing that the people in the orchestra are happy performing. And that is partly the conductors’ responsibility.”

You have recently been appointed the principal guest conductor of London Philharmonia orchestra. How would you describe it and what do you most enjoy about making music with them?

“It is not easy to take out just a couple of aspects, but I would mention two. One is their amazing culture of playing, especially towards the soft sphere of dynamics, piano, pianissimo. They are an orchestra which can produce subtleties which other orchestras maybe haven’t produce ever on a regular basis. They are eager and keen themselves to discover the range of sounds.

“They are also an ensemble which works harder than any other in the world. They really have sometimes as much as three different programmes per week. They prepare amazingly quickly and the demand on their lives, constantly changing the subject of their activity, that all doesn’t lead to their complaining about anything.

Jakub Hrůša,  photo: Andreas Herzau
“They are simply in good mood all the time. I find that a great sign of culture of collective institution. And this combination of professionalism and good mood is a great blessing for all of us who are privileged to work with them.”

How would you actually describe the difference between being a chief conductor and a guest conductor and what are the advantages of being a guest conductor?

“There is definitely an advantage of not having so much responsibility. It is good to have responsibilities but in a way it can go wrong as well. If there is something really complicated about the chemistry between the chief conductor and the orchestra, it is that the players usually have a lot of expectation and a lot of wishes and frustrations and they project those on the leader.

“It is very easy to project even the expectations which are not so much connected to music. And that can actually effect the innocence of music making which, when you are a guest conductor, is easier to achieve, because you don’t have to deal with the personal agenda, you only deal with music.”

“On the other hand, as a guest conductor, you cannot influence the institutions as deeply. So if you want to create a certain profile direction of a repertoire, you cannot do that. It is the agenda of the music director or the chief conductor. So both aspects have their positives and negatives. That’s why I am happy about this combination of being a firm chief conductor in Bamberg but having these slightly loser but really intense relationships in Prague, London and Tokyo.”

As a guest conductor, can you actually influence the repertoire of the orchestra?

“Basically, I always have a say. It’s never the case that the institution would say: we invite you to do this otherwise you cannot come. It is always a dialogue. More or less, now after some ten years of my artistic work I am luckily in a situation in which I can basically influence my own programmes one hundred percent. Not in the sense that I would say: I will do this and everyone agrees, but I can really create a selection of options and it is always something I love to do.

“But you cannot as easily influence the wider repertoire of the orchestra, persuade the institutions which are not in constant touch with you to do less now pieces about which you are enthusiastic.

“Because I am a Czech conductor, there are certain pieces of Czech repertoire and composers, such as Martinů, or Suk, or Kabeláč, who are very dear to me. But if you don’t have an intense relationship with the institution, it is sometimes difficult to convince the promoters to have more of these pieces.”

Jakub Hrůša,  photo: Andreas Herzau
“If you are a chief conductor, it is your own responsibility if you want to risk certain habits, and these positions of principal guest or permanent guest conductors are something in between. So you have a say but of course you are not the boss.”

You have already mentioned some names, but what kind of repertoire is the closest to your heart?

“There is an answer to this question, unless we could speak for two hours. I have some temporary inclinations, it really depends where I am. I also have to plan my season - all conductors plan two or three seasons ahead. But it is a very interesting game, because you don’t really know exactly what you will like in two or three years’ time, right? It is nice to have the comfort of knowing what you will do in two years’ time, but it is difficult to say what you will like to do at that point.

“But there are certain central points of repertoire which are always present in my calendar and Czech music is naturally there. Although if I look at my schedule I can actually see that it is not a majority of what I do. So the balance of discovering new things, including contemporary music and fulfilling the expectations that I will take care of treasures of my own culture, Czech culture, that I find important, and it seems to be that it is going well.”

What kind your work awaits you in the near future?

“For example this evening I am doing pieces by Bartók, Britten and Scriabin, so very colourful programme. Next week in Bamberg, I am going to do contemporary music as well as Bach and Brahms, so again a very colourful range of pieces. And later, for instance, I will be in Amsterdam, doing pieces by Vítězslav Novák.

“And then I go to Chicago and New York for my debut there, bringing Má Vlast by Smetana and pieces by Dvořák, Slavonic Dances and Violin Concerto, as well as Janáček’s Taras Bulba and after summer I will be doing some opera.

“So as you can see, I am not eclectic, I have certain concentrations in my life, but I love the variety and I feel personally really enriched by how much beauty I can daily have in my life.”