Eliahu Inbal - the new chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic

Eliahu Inbal, photo: CTK

The Czech Philharmonic has a new conductor. As of 2009, the orchestra which was first conducted by Antonín Dvořák over a century ago will hand the baton over to the Israeli conductor Eliahu Inbal. The orchestra’s general director, Václav Riedlbauch, explains his selection criteria:

Eliahu Inbal,  photo: CTK
“To be the chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic is a very special thing. It isn’t for everyone. I can quickly explain to you our criteria: first of all someone with top artistic qualities is required. Secondly, and very important for us is international renown, this means the name of this conductor has to be known around the world. Mr Inbal is really able to fill both of these criteria, and the main condition in all discussion is the free calendar of the conductor. You may have dreams about who you want, but reality is reality. Many artists, their calendars are completely filled up four or five years in advance.”

Can you tell me a bit about the repertoire you have discussed with Mr Inbal?

“What is very important with Mr Inbal is that he is very well educated when it comes to not only Czech but European culture. And this is very necessary for getting a feel of Czech music. You know, we are a national orchestra, and our main role is to present, both at home and abroad, Czech music - not just classical things by Smetana and Dvořák and others, but new music also. And he is very open to that.”

But now to the man himself. When Eliahu Inbal takes over the Czech Philharmonic in 2009, he will still also be head of the Metropolitan Orchestra in Tokyo. I asked him what he thought the commute between Japanese and Czech culture would be like:

“These are really two very different cultures, not just two different time zones. When I conduct a Japanese orchestra it is always a shock for me, the first rehearsal, because I see one-hundred people silent, as if in a graveyard, and for me, because I am not Japanese, I don’t know what the hidden expressions are on their faces. To me, it looks like they have no expression on their faces, and this is kind of respect, I suppose, that they have for me.

“Little by little, as we work together, they warm and open up a little and there is some humour and some noise which is good, it’s a sign of life. So it’s really another culture, but the work is very satisfying. These orchestras are very serious, very professional, and very musical as well. So the main difference is that when I come back from Japan I am destroyed because of the jetlag. And for a lot of days I just function on half of the energy that I have.”

But what about Prague, is this going to be a known culture for you? Or is this a little bit of a step into the unknown for you as well?

“Well, the language, the fact that I don’t speak the language is of course an obstacle. It is difficult to make contact with every musician personally. But otherwise, we are here surrounded by Middle European culture, or mitteleuropaische Kultur. And in that sense, I feel myself at home, because I have conducted in Budapest, in Germany – all over Germany – and this is the same kind of mentality and atmosphere.”

When you were talking before, you talked about the link between a country’s language and its music. So from hearing Czech, how do you think the Czech Philharmonic will play? And do you think it will be easy for them to interpret say French or Italian pieces?

“Every orchestra gives the conductor certain advantages in some repertories, and some repertories where he will have to work to obtain the specific colour of a different country. In French music I will ask for more subtle colours, for a more elegant way of phrasing. In the biggest part of really important symphonic music, from Russia to Germany, they will be at home. In Prague you are at home with Brahms, you are at home with Mozart – you know Mozart was very often in Prague. And the only thing you could say is maybe with French and Spanish music where you have to bring a special colour. But, they are musicians, they get it.”

Eliahu Inbal,  photo: CTK
But back to the Czech language – how would you say it sounds and the way this is reflected in the Czech Philharmonic orchestra?

“I think there is a kind of robustness and a kind of honesty to it, which is tied to the earth. A kind of primitivism, in the good sense, of real connection to the earth, to the culture, to the folklore, to the body. This is extremely important for this kind of music that we talked about, this mitteleuropaische music. If you take Brahms for example, he had so much Hungarian and tzigane music influencing his compositions. Beethoven also. So, this is important for the whole body of Russian music, Shostakovich, Stravinsky and so forth. So, they are okay from the very beginning for the biggest part of the repertory.”

What plans do you have for the Czech Philharmonic, and is there any one thing you are particularly excited about?

“As I said, I will place some stress on Czech music, because people expect us when we go abroad to play Dvorak, Smetana, Suk, Martinů, Janáček, and we will do that, without any doubt. But we will absolutely present what I call the ‘great repertory’ – from Mozart, Beethoven to Mahler and Brückner and Strauss and so on. We will do that, and I’m very excited about the project of conducting and recording all of Mahler’s symphonies in 2010-2011. Because for me this is always a big occasion. Mahler is the greatest symphonist of all time. What Beethoven was for the 18th-19th century, Mahler was for the 19th-20th century.”

This is one of the Czech philharmonic’s previous recordings of Mahler – his eighth symphony in E flat major being performed in 1982. Prague awaits Mr Inbal’s arrival, and the realization of his plans.