Encore: Making waves from Prague to Tokyo - the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra
Our guest in Encore works just down the corridor here in the main Czech Radio building in the heart of Prague. He's the pianist Jan Simon, executive director and soloist in residence of one of the most important orchestras in the Czech Republic, the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra.
We're going to be talking about the history of the orchestra, which goes back to the pioneering days of broadcasting. Could you tell us a little about those early days?
"The very beginning of the orchestra is in 1926, so it means three years after the founding of Czech Radio in 1923. The main purpose was not to create a real symphony orchestra. It was a group of musicians who were supposed to fill the intermissions between the spoken parts of the transmissions on the radio. So that's why they were engaged to play."
So they'd be in the studio, waiting to play live between the various spoken broadcasts.
"Exactly. With the years this group of musicians enlarged to the size of approximately 50 people, which was the situation after the Second World War, and it was called the Prague Studio Orchestra. And from the beginning of the sixties this orchestra became a real size of a symphony orchestra with a standard symphony repertory, although the main purpose stayed the same, to record studio productions for - at that time - Czechoslovak Radio. They didn't play live concerts so much."
Moving forwards from the pioneering days when radio orchestras were there mainly to play live on air - how did the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra come to be one of the top Czech orchestras?
"I think this is a result of competition, because when the orchestra began its own activity, and came out of the studio onto the concert platform, they realized that they had to be competitive and comparable with other standard symphony orchestras. So it was the only way to be able to keep performing and to find its own audience. The only way was to have decent quality."
And I gather that one of the people who really did a great deal to get the orchestra on the map was Vladimir Valek, who became chief conductor in 1985.
"It's his twentieth concert season this year, and I have to say that especially the last ten years have been very successful for the orchestra and brought the orchestra to very prestigious stages worldwide, starting with Asia - we have already been in Japan seven times on tour, the United States, Great Britain, France, I can name almost all the European countries."
You say that that has been especially in the last ten years. To what extent has it been thanks to the opening that has come through the fall of the Iron Curtain?
"The former monopoly agency, Pragoconcert, took care mostly of the Czech Philharmonic, which was the flagship, and other orchestras weren't so pushed by the government for stages abroad. So after the Iron Curtain fell, it opened the market for other orchestras. Now it's only dependent on the quality of the orchestra and doesn't matter what kind of "trade mark" an orchestra has, the audience is looking for quality, and I can say very proudly that our orchestra is really one of the absolute top European symphony orchestras."
You have an interesting combination of functions, as executive director of the orchestra and also as the soloist in residence, as a pianist. How do you manage to keep those two functions going without compromising either of them?
"It was a certain kind of challenge. I don't live for the function of director, but I'm very happy to work with people like Vladimir Valek, and to see the enthusiasm of all members of the orchestra to achieve absolute top artistic standards. And when I can see this kind of effort, it encourages me to put all my power into this function."
We've been talking a lot about the past. What about this season?
"We started with a concert tour to Germany for the Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk Musiksommer, which is a big German festival, and now we are leaving for another German tour. We are going in February again. We plan another tour to Japan and South Korea, so we have a lot to do concerning concert tours. But the centre point of our concert activity is our subscription season. We are giving about thirteen concerts this season in the Prague Rudolfinum, and we are very proud that our concert season is completely sold out. This has been the case for years."
I was quite surprised by the extent to which the orchestra travels, because I was talking earlier this year to Libor Pesek, one of the great Czech conductors, who was saying that it's becoming increasingly difficult for orchestras to travel and that they're doing it less and less.
"That's right. I was recently at a conference of European radio symphony orchestras and definitely the financial resources are not strong enough to support these concert activities. We are asked to self-finance all our tours, which means, we don't get any subventions from the government or from the radio itself. So organizers and venues have to pay all our costs to cover everything connected with the organizing of the tour. But still it's possible, and there is a selection and competition among orchestras to get their place on concert stages abroad."
So you have to be not only a virtuoso pianist, but also a virtuoso financial manager.
"That's what I'm asked to be. If I am definitely that I don't know!"
Magic Carpet - world music in the heart of Europe
It is presented by Petr Doruzka, one of the Czech Republic's foremost music journalists.
For copyright reasons we are unable to archive the programmes in audio, but here at least are a few words about some of the recordings featured recently in the programme.
Since the fall of the Iron Curtain 15 years ago, one of the most interesting exports from East European countries has been Gypsy music: wedding brass orchestras from Serbia, cymbalom and fiddle bands from Romania and Hungary. In the Czech Republic, Gypsy music is on the rise too, but often it sounds very different from the style of our East European neighbours. Terne Chave has earned a reputation as a great live band. Their new album, Kai Dzas (Where are we going), gives us a flavour of where Gypsy music may be going.
The violin maestro Yehudi Menuhin, who died in 1999, once said: "When we think about the violin, we think about the tradition of Stradivarius. But we forget the violin is derived from a folk music instrument, the fiddle." Jiri Plocek, Czech researcher and musician, comments: "There is a link between fiddlers from Moravia, my home region, and fiddlers from Scotland or Scandinavia. Their music is vibrant and sparkles with energy." Plocek's musical partner Jitka Suranska, explains: "This is a very different style than playing with a symphony orchestra, which is my second job. But playing with Jiri opens a new door for me: playing from the heart."