The musical alchemy of Zdenek Macal, acclaimed Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic

Zdenek Macal

Zdenek Macal was born 71 years ago in the Czech Republic's second city of Brno. He achieved success rapidly, first conducting the Czech Philharmonic in 1966 at the age of 30. With the Soviet invasion two years later he fled the country, but quickly found his feet abroad, serving as chief conductor of the Cologne Radio Orchestra and then beginning a hugely successful career in the United States. His time as musical director of the Milwaukee Symphony and the New Jersey Symphony, saw both orchestras blossom, with the maestro showing a good head for business on top of his undoubted qualities as a conductor. When Zdenek Macal was invited to join the Czech Philharmonic as chief conductor in 2003, he was coming back to the land of his birth after more than three decades abroad. At the time I asked him if he felt nervous taking up the Czech Republic's most high-profile musical post:

Zdenek Macal
"Now I'm finally back in the place where I started thirty or so years ago, so it's a great feeling. My music-making is just a joy, and you enjoy it with me or we can just leave it. But I'm not afraid, because I have no reason to be afraid, because the musicians are so great. I stretch my hands and I show you what I want, and you respond. You respond with a beautiful sound, you inspire me."

Four years later there can be little doubt that the chemistry between the orchestra and its conductor really has worked, as the Philharmonic has gone from strength to strength, much to the delight of its former spokesman, Petr Vlha:

Petr Vlha
"I think Zdenek Macal and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra are one. It is an orchestra with its head, with its leader, and Zdenek Macal is a perfect leader. His perfection in the art of the conductor is fascinating. He's absolutely steeped in the music, and his work is fascinating to watch."

Next year, Zdenek Macal's tenure at the Czech Philharmonic draws to an end, but he will certainly not be ending his exceptionally close relationship with the orchestra. A few days ago, our colleague Patricia Goodson went to visit the maestro and from his office in Prague's beautiful Rudolfinum concert hall, the home of the Philharmonic, he began by telling her about his plans with the orchestra.

"When I accepted this position four or five years ago, I thought that I would do some 'abonnement' concerts here in Prague and a few tours here and there, but it's enormous now, and I just finished a period of almost three months non-stop with the orchestra. I was looking here at lunchtime at the fall of next season. I will start in the middle of August, going almost three months non-stop. So it's a lot of concerts - especially a lot of tours. We are going to Japan for two weeks; we were recently ten days in Spain. So there are short trips, long trips, but altogether it's a lot of concerts, so I don't think that in this capacity I can carry on doing it. I'm not so young and I'm working as hard as when I was in my forties."

It's a little unusual these days for a conductor to work so intensively with an orchestra for such a long period of time. Usually the trend is to have guest conductors. Are you trying with the orchestra to go back to an older way of doing things?

"You know, all my life I have conducted a lot, I must say. Besides my permanent orchestras - almost all my life I've had at least two - I have also done a lot of guest conducting, so I am used to this. But the reason why I concentrated on the Czech Philharmonic was that I was thinking that if I would like to achieve something in a short period of time, I have to be here present. I cannot come for one week and then disappear for two weeks, as some are doing. In many orchestras that is the standard these days, because people like change and to see other faces, but for practical reasons and to achieve good results in quality, in sound or - let's put it this way: if I want the orchestra to play my way, they have to know how they should play. So I have to rehearse a lot and, of course, the concerts are a performance, but if you take it over a long period, over three years, basically the concert is just one step to move the orchestra higher."

It reminds me of the golden age of orchestras - the philosophy of really creating a particular sound for a particular ensemble.

Zdenek Macal
"That's correct. After a few bars you recognized, even if you didn't know who was playing, that it could be Philadelphia, it could be Boston or it could be - in Bernstein's time - the New York Philharmonic, because the orchestras had a special sound which distinguished them from others."

Where are you wanting to take the orchestra in terms of sound, and how would you compare it to the American orchestras?

"I worked for a very long period of time - living non-stop in the United States. I'm an American citizen, and I was so busy in the United States that there was a period when we went very little to Europe. Of course the orchestras are excellent, most of them. They are technically brilliant and they are prepared for the rehearsals. So the work goes very fast and you can get very good results. But globalization is increasingly not only in the economy and politics, but also in music. Basically the same conductors go from one orchestra to another and they request the same thing. It seems to me that most orchestras are now sounding similar. It's not this distinguishable, special sound, which used to be many years ago. The Czech Philharmonic has a great tradition of Czech music, Czech musicality and a Czech sound, and even if it sometimes goes better or worse, the basis stays here all the time, even if it may be just dreaming or sleeping."

Can you describe a little bit what makes it special?

"The sound starts with the strings. There was always a very good school of the strings here, and a very warm sound from the string section. Of course it's very difficult to explain, but let's say it's in the phrasing, because you can play the same phrase a hundred different ways, or you sometimes don't phrase at all. So for me every single phrase, or almost every note, has to talk, and should have a special quality. That's what I try to get from the whole orchestra. As I said, the basis is the strings and then you add the soloists from the woodwind to this velvet string sound, and then you add the brass, which is never heavy, never brassy. Some American orchestras are brilliant, but they are brassy, and that's not exactly what the Czech sound is about. We Czechs as people are very friendly, very - I wouldn't say soft, but let's say 'dolce' - not brassy, and so now you can imagine a little bit what this special Czech sound is like."

Yes, when I think of the older horn and trumpet sounds here, they were always quite different. Now that difference is unfortunately going away to some degree, because the players want it.

"Yes, to some degree, but you know, you can request it. If I don't like the sound I can stop and say, 'Change the way you do it,' and sometimes they react just to my gesture. And another very important thing is that we have something in common that helps me to get my sound more easily, without even talking about this: we have the same blood in our bodies, which means that sometimes I just look or just show something with my hands. I am very kinetic, I cannot even talk without gesticulating, so with my hands I show a lot of things, which I needn't explain with words. If you look at my hands, and look at my face, and we play the phrase, so just read my face and my fingers. And if you respond and if you feel the same way - which the majority feels because, as I said, we have the same blood in our bodies - it's already there, or at least half of it. That's a lot, because with a non-Czech orchestra I have a lot to explain - how to play Dvorak or Smetana or other Czech music in a really Czech way."

I'm sorry our listeners can't see you [both laugh], because you do speak very expressively, and your hands are waving. It's wonderful to watch. You mentioned that you have some special projects going on. Can you tell us about some of those?

"We started several recordings, and then came the cycles. We are recording all ten Mahler symphonies. We already have six or seven now. As for Dvorak, we only need the First Symphony. The other eight are already out. Of the six Tchaikovsky symphonies we have finished four. Now, at a time when CD's are not very big business, as you know, I have made in the last three or four years close to 40 CD's, which is a big number. I want to finish the cycles. I don't like to say, 'Okay, we'll do ten Mahler symphonies, but we don't have two or three of them.'

"The bottom line is that you talk about the money. I try to be a musician and to make music. However, after 25 years in the United States, I have learned to think from the management side, because the difference between Europe and the United States is that in the United States we needed to raise three quarters of the money for the season. This means I had to go to the parties and shake the sponsors' hands, and that's what I learned very well in those 25 years. If I am planning something, I still think: will we need a large orchestra, or will we need some extra soloists? Everything costs money, so the United States was a very good school for me, because I was also involved in money raising and all those things."

I wanted to ask you about the difference between state and private support, and also, because you spent at least 25 years in the States and learned a whole different way of doing things, how is that received here?

"You know, it's so different that I needed quite a lot of time to get used to this, because in the United States as music director nothing moved without them asking me. So I was permanently on the phone. They called and faxed me and there were discussions and meetings. I had to discuss almost every single thing. Conducting here is totally different. I can concentrate on the music. I am very little involved in discussing money, because in the Czech Republic people are still not used to it. We have some sponsors but not in the American way.

"The Americans are used to this. They are bored with it already. From the school they know that they can only go to school because somebody sponsors the school or sponsors the church or sponsors the hospitals or gives money for the museum, for the opera, for ballet, for the symphony orchestra. You hear it from your childhood, and then when you grow up and are in business, you do it and you help all these organizations, or even if you are not, but you have some money on the side, then you give a hundred, a thousand or ten thousand dollars, and your name is then in the programme. The people are proud. You know, the Americans are born with this sense of giving.

"In Europe people are not used to giving, and the Czechs not at all, because in the communist regime everything was from the state. And of course, they hated the state so they were not willing to give anything. Now there is a different situation, but still you need two or three generations until the system changes, or until the people start to think in a different way."

Do you think it should change?

"It's difficult. You know, you cannot project these important things ahead. We will first see how it goes with a united Europe. In America there are 52 states and everybody is American, everybody lives together. You can be from Texas or from wherever, but you are still American. But as you see now in Brussels, there are 27 European states. Even if there were twelve they wouldn't be able to get together. Always somebody is against. They say everybody must agree, but, you know, I cannot imagine they will agree on these things. So it is a big process which will take a long, long time."

As chief conductor, are you very involved in working up programmes, the dramaturgy, or do you have a committee? How does that work?

"In the United States I basically decided all the things. In Prague, I do my programmes, and then we have an administration. There is a general director, who does most of the programming with guest conductors and guest soloists. I know about it, but it is his work. This is much easier for me. In the United States, everything was in my hands. Now, when I see the difference, I am glad that I am here. I don't want to do it the way I did it for 25 years. It's a lot of work - but I was young, I had a lot of energy, so it was a good learning process for me. It was something new, because I had started in Europe, then I spent time in the United States. So I learned it there and then I came back here. It's a good experience."

You mentioned a particular school of Czech violin playing, or string playing. Is there are similar school of conducting or something distinctive about the Czech approach to conducting?

"It's complicated with conducting, because there are many good orchestras in Europe and many good orchestras in the United States. Why? Because we have excellent schools. Just in New York I can name Juilliard, or the Manhattan School of Music, the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and many, many others. They produce excellent musicians, and they go then into the orchestras well prepared. Mostly they already know the repertoire which they play in the orchestra. So the orchestras are on a very high level. You can go from the East Coast - the New York Philharmonic - up to San Diego on the other coast. For a while we were living not far from San Diego and I conducted a few times there. You wouldn't believe it. There's a wonderful orchestra there. You can go almost any place in the United States. So the level has gone up. A similar thing has happened in Europe because the schools are better and better, and better students are coming out of them.

"Now we come to the point that there are many good orchestras, but not so many good conductors or music directors. And that's a problem. Also, if you are a violinist or a pianist, you learn your instrument. Somebody shows you how to do it. To be a conductor today is such a complex job, especially in the United States, because in Europe it is still enough to be a good conductor and a good musician. In the United States you must be partly a manager. I have said many times that if I had known it, I would have studied law as well as music, just to better understand all these technical things. For example: hiring and firing musicians. I had no experience with this, so I always went to the meeting with a lawyer. I needed to ask, how far I can go, what can I do, but that was just a small part of it. So the job of the music director, especially in the United States, is huge today.

Zdenek Macal
"Besides this, don't forget that the communication is important. It is so complex, but you cannot stop it because you have it almost everywhere. It is how developments are moving in technology. Everything is coming to us. You cannot just stop. I try my best - I have no mobile telephone, I have no email, because I have people who know that I am sitting here and that in the next five minutes I will leave and go home. So I have no answering machine at home. I try to live a little bit normally. Otherwise you are just like in a machine. It can destroy your spirit, your life, and you cannot work. I have to study my scores and not sit on the phone."

Yes, I think that for any sensitive musician it is almost necessary to have someone to protect your time. All you have is your time.

"I have to protect my privacy too. You have just heard everything I am doing - how many concerts and other things. I also have to have time for myself, for my wife, for a little bit of private life. You are not alone [laughs]. That's a lot of work, you know."