Encore: Making waves from Prague to Tokyo - the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra

Jan Simon

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

Petr Doruzka
Magic Carpet is Radio Prague's monthly music magazine that looks at music from Czech, Moravian and Silesian towns and villages. The programme covers a wide selection of genres, from traditional folk to the exotic and experimental.

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.


Terne Chave
5.12.2004:Terne Chave, Gypsy roots with a future

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.

Link: Terne Chave live


The mean fiddlers from Moravia
7.11.2004:The mean fiddlers from Moravia

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."

Link: www.mujweb.cz/www/gnosis_brno

10.10.2004: Anybody who travelled east before the fall of the Iron Curtain remembers the Trabant. A funny little car with a motorcycle engine manufactured in Eastern Germany. The word Trabant was used in many jokes. In a slightly transformed form, it serves as a name for a band. Yes, Traband, with a D, is a band with a strong sense of humour, and contrary to the Trabant car, they have a lot of energy to spare - and also some remarkable musical ideas. Recently Traband finished a new album, which is ready for release. On their past albums Traband have always used a unifying theme behind their songs, so I asked the leader, singer and composer Jarda Svoboda, what is the concept of their new CD? "It's called Hyje, which means 'Go horses!'. The songs are full of knights, horsemen of Apocalypse, riders and golden chariots." Despite the fact that Traband has existed for 10 years, they are not a band who can fill a stadium, and I am also sure this is not their ambition. Yet they are quite successful abroad - they often play in France and recently they returned from the first tour of Japan. Even though Traband put a great deal of energy into their lyrics, you do not have to speak Czech to enjoy their music.

Link: www.traband.net

12.09.2004: The Eastern part of the Czech Republic, close to the Slovak border, happens to be very fertile source of traditional music. Up in the north, the wooded highlands once were sheltering thieves and outlaws. To make this region safer, four centuries ago the land was offered to farmers and shepherds who also functioned as a border patrol. Most of the settlers came from the East, even from Romania. This newly populated region was given the name Wallachia, after the historical name for the Romanian kingdom. Today, their descendants speak Czech, but the region is known for its distinguished wooden architecture, sheep herding and also music. The Wallachian ensemble Docuku could be seen as a regional all star band. The set-up features a violin player, who's also leader of one of the best local cymbalom bands, Solan. The drummer used to play with a well-known Czech rock band Mnaga & Zdorp for 10 years. And one of the key members of Docuku is a gifted young woman, who sings and plays mandolin: Lucie Redlova, the daughter of veteran foksinger Vlasta Redl. Their first album was released this summer, featuring contemporary arrangements of folk songs.

Link: www.docuku.centrala.org

15.08.2004: In the era of major companies and global pop it takes a lot of courage to be independent. The fretless bass guitar player Sina and her partner, guitarist Daniel Salontay, formed Slnko Records in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. In the beginning, they burned the CDs on their home computer, packaged them and sent by mail - but with growing success of their company this became harder more difficult. With their band, Dlhe Diely, they were one of the brightest surprises of last years Colours of Ostrava festival. Magic Carpet features both Dlhe Diely and Sina's solo albums.

Link: www.slnkorecords.sk

18.07.2004: The history of the Prague band Jablkon reaches deep into the past. In 1977 they started as an acoustic trio with two guitars and percussion and their music was in stark contrast to every existing fashion.Jablkon blended instruments with voices in very unorthodox way. The musicians invented a wide spectrum of howls, wails, screams, grunts and other deeply human sounds, and used just the right amount of this vocal seasoning to build a pattern, a momntum of a non-verbal message, or just a joke. Their music was like a well crafted building with a wild back yard; in the large scale architecture you can feel delicate melodies and musical forms of a sophisticated European origin.As years went by, the classical elements of their music became more apparent in 90's, when the band played with the classical violinist Jaroslav Sveceny, and made a rare appearance with a symphonic orchestra. Last year, the band celebrated the first 25 years of it's existence. On a memorable concert in the Prague Archa theatre, Jablkon performed with the Moravian Symphony orchestra and other guest players. Magic Carpet features the live CD from this concert.

Link: www.jablkon.com

Magic Carpet Archive

See also:

Gypsy music - a rediscovered heritage?

Reinventing folk music with the Moberg Ensemble

No respect for borders from Quakvarteto

The History of Music