“It is something special” – New Radio Orchestra chief returns to where it all began

Petr Popelka

The Prague Radio Symphony orchestra will enter its 96th season under new chief conductor and music director Petr Popelka. The 36-year-old musician, regarded as one of the most talented contemporary conductors, presented the programme of the upcoming season at a press conference at the Czech Radio building on Thursday. I spoke to Mr Popelka about his inaugural concert, scheduled for the beginning of October, but I first asked him what it feels like, returning to the orchestra where he started his career as a young musician:

“It is really something special. I studied in Prague; I studied double bass and my first job was in this orchestra, when I was 18 or 19. Then I left for Germany, because I wanted to get some experience, study a bit and come back.

“But I ended up staying in Germany for the next 16 years. So returning to Prague now and taking the position of Artistic Director of this orchestra, where my musical journey started, it’s really something special.”

Do you still remember your first performance here in the Radio building?

“Of course I do. And I also remember my first rehearsal. At the time, the chief conductor was Vladimír Válek, who was very famous at the time. He was a fantastic musician and a fantastic conductor, but musicians were afraid of him, because he could lose his nerves very quickly.”

Petr Popelka and Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra | Photo: Vojtěch Brtnický,  Czech Radio

When you were offered the position of the chief conductor of Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, did you immediately know that you would take it?

“More or less. On one hand, I am still a chief conductor of Norwegian Radio Orchestra and my contract will continue until the end of next season. I love working in Scandinavia and in Germany and I will eventually return back to those orchestras.

“But Prague is my city. I feel at home here. My family is here. I have lot of friends here in the orchestra, so it was a very emotional decision to come back and take the position, but I am happy that I decided this way.”

What do you most value about the Prague Radio Symphony orchestra?

“Playing in this orchestra was my first professional music experience. The orchestra is exactly as I remember in a most positive way. The musicians are on the highest level, their work is very fast and very professional, but there is also a very friendly and even familiar atmosphere. That’s what makes it so special. I know all of my conductor colleagues and soloists want to return to the orchestra and that is very nice.”

Your inaugural concert will take place on the 3rd of October. What will be on the programme?

“It will be a very special programme, I have to say. We are very lucky that the world-leading violinist Frank Peter Zimmerman accepted our invitation and will play Johannes Brahms’ Concerto in D major to with us.

“In the second half of the programme we will present a monumental work from the beginning of the century by Arnold Schonberg, Pelleas and Melissandre. It is his early work and it presents the climax of Romantic music, so it is music full of emotion and incredible harmonies. So I believe it will be a very interesting journey for the public.”

And finally, what are some of the other highlights of the upcoming season? Which concerts are you most looking forward to?

Petr Popelka and Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra | Photo: Vojtěch Brtnický,  Czech Radio

“I am especially looking forward to the beginning of 2023, because we will have concert marking what would be the 100th birthday of the Hungarian composer György Ligeti, who was a legendary representative of the so-called modern music.

“The soloist will Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who is not only a fantastic violin player, but also a fantastic artist and it seem like the violin concerto by György Ligeti was written for her. That is something I am really looking forward to.

“I would also like to mention the Tristan project. During the next three years, we will perform all three acts of Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde. It is something very unique to hear an opera on the concert stage, so I think it will be very interesting for the public.

“What I am also looking forward to are all the concerts with our first guest conductor Robert Jindra and all guest conductors and guest soloists. I really believe our programme is very special and every European orchestra could be proud of it.”