Pavel Trojan: All my previous professions give me good base for heading Prague Spring

Pavel Trojan

Czechia’s most important classical event, the Prague Spring International Music Festival, will kick off, as every year, on May 12. But this time out there will be a new director at the helm – 38-year-old Pavel Trojan. Ahead of the 78th edition I sat down with him at the cramped but cozy offices of the Prague Spring festival in the Malá Strana district.

Pavel Trojan | Photo: Tomáš Vodňanský,  Czech Radio

Tell us something about your family background.

“My family background is quite musical.

“My father is a composer and for many years served as director of the Prague Conservatory.

“And my mother is a doctor but at a young age she was a super pianist.

“She comes from Slovakia in her teenage period she attended many Slovak competitions and usually was first or in second place.

“So I have some family background with musical roots.”

Photo illustrative: Vlad Vanecov,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

What were your own beginnings in music?

“At the age of five I attended piano lessons, but I never dreamed about being a professional musician

“Maybe my mother wished that, but during the difficult period of teenage rejection of anything that comes from parents I decided not to do music.

“But then I went to regular high school and there was a very good choir and we made our own musical – and I wrote the music.

“It was quite successful and many people said to me, Why don’t you write music?

“So I decided, Why not? Because I enjoyed it a lot.

“I passed the exams for the composition department at the Prague Conservatory.

“At the same time, I was acting a lot, because since early childhood I was in a theatre group, an operatic theatre group.

“So I had this two-railed life: nearly professional acting, but never studied, and music.

“And at some point, at about 20 years old, I had to decide to do just one thing, and I decided for music.

“I went to the composition department at the Academy of Music, I did conducting lessons at the Conservatory and I spent nearly one year in London as an Erasmus student at the Guildhall School of Music.

“And, because I like the practical side of things, I decided to study music management as well.

“So along with conducting and composition, music management is now fulfilling my life.”

Pavel Trojan in Dobrá čtvrť | Photo: Czech Television

To digress for a second, you mentioned your acting career. You were in a TV drama, Dobrá čtvrť, which was a big show at the time. Were you well known? Were people recognising you on the street?

“Sometimes yes. And besides Dobrá čtvrť I was also in Pojišťovna štěstí, which was a soap series on commercial TV.

“It’s very funny to be at meetings, when it very often happens that the other person recognises me but can’t figure out from where.

“And after a few minutes I mention Dobrá čtvrť or Pojišťovna štěstí and it’s very interesting to discover what kind of TV series they were watching [laughs].”

Rudolfinum concert hall in Prague | Photo: Petr Veber,  Czech Radio

What were your first interactions or encounters with the Prague Spring International Music Festival?

“I have been with the festival for 18 years now.

“I started as a volunteer, during the festival. I was working for the press section.

“Then, after four years, I was accepted as an employee of the festival.

“First I started doing online marketing and a special programme for the young audience.

“I ended up as press secretary and then, four years ago, the former director, Roman Bělor, chose me as his deputy.

“And when Mr. Bělor was elected as a member of parliament, two years ago, he offered his position to the Board of Directors.

“They asked me to prepare a project, a vision, for the Prague Spring festival and after a few interviews they offered me to become new director.”

I was reading that you also conducted at the Prague Spring, at the Municipal House in 2014. How does performing at the Prague Spring compare to other concerts, or events or festivals?

“It was the intention of Jiří Bělohlávek, who was the president of the festival then, and he knew me from cooperation in 2011, when the Prague Conservatory Symphonic Orchestra opened the festival with Má vlast [My Country], and Mr. Bělohlávek conducted it.

“The orchestra was prepared by the professors of the conservatory and I, as a student then, had the chance to work with the orchestra as well, and Mr. Bělohlávek.

“We got in touch and he asked me to assist him when he was at several places: the Vienna State Opera, and in Leipzig.

“So I was very lucky to be in touch with him.

“Then he offered the Artistic Board of the Prague Spring festival that young Czech conductors should have some platform to make their debuts.

“So that’s how the debut series of the Prague Spring festival was invented – and I was the first candidate.

“It’s not comparable to anything else, because the expectations are enormous.

“And this experience stays very deeply in my heart.”

Rafael Kubelík | Photo: Týdeník Rozhlas

You became the head of the country’s biggest and oldest major music festival in your 30s. Has that brought extra pressure on you, getting the job at such a relatively young age?

“I’m late 30s.

“And I sleep well because when Rafael Kubelík founded the festival he was even younger [laughs].”

“I sleep well because when Rafael Kubelík founded the festival he was even younger.”

This year’s edition is your first as the head of the festival. Obviously there’s lots of planning in classical music; things are organised a very long time in advance. How much have you been able to put your stamp on this year’s upcoming edition?

“As I have been part of the festival for many years – and you are right, planning is four or five years ahead – I was part of the planning, as a member of the team.

“Of course the main artistic heading is led by the programme advisor and the Artistic Board.

“But everybody on the team has some fingerprints on the programming.

“We did some last minute changes to the programming last summer, because the world is very different to the situation three, four years ago.

“But I’m very proud of the programme we presented.”

“In 2022 the situation with ticket sales wasn’t yet at the level of the pre-Covid years, mainly because of Putin’s war in Ukraine.”

Is there some impact on the festival now from the Covid years, still?

“2020 and 2021 were completely different festivals.

“In 2022 finally we had a chance to invite musicians from all around the world, but the situation with ticket sales wasn’t yet at the level of the pre-Covid years.

“That was mainly because of Putin’s war in Ukraine.

“When he attacked it was two months before the last edition of the festival, so the uncertainty in society was very high.

“We didn’t know… I personally remember the thinking: ‘What will happen in May? Will Putin be still Ukraine, or attack other countries?’

“So it definitely affected ticket sales.

“This year the situation is, thank God, much better.

“And from the point of view of ticket sales we are nearly reaching the levels of pre-Covid times.”

Pavel Trojan | Photo: Veronika Paroulková,  Czech Radio

How do you go about programming the festival? What determines the selection? Do you have to balance international and Czech ensembles? How does it work?

“After 80 years, I think the festival has developed into a very good shape.

“It’s 30 to 40 concerts. We know that there should be strong participation of international orchestras, because this is the main mission of the Prague Spring: to bring the international scene to the Czech nation.

“The second thing is to make a bridge between Czech artists and international artists.

“The third thing is to promote young talents to establish their career with reference to the greatest artists of our time and to empower the contemporary scene.”

“We aim to find conductors and orchestras which can bring a fresh view on My Country.”

Famously the festival begins every year on May 12 with My Country by Smetana, performed by different orchestras. How are they selected?

“We aim to find the conductors and orchestras which can bring a fresh view on this piece, to bring this piece to the international scene.

“That was our aim with Daniel Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic.

“When we invite them what happens very often is that they, in cooperation with us, create a European tour with this piece.

“So not only is the piece getting known to some famous international orchestra – but even with an international audience outside the Czech Republic, which is very important.

“We always seek strong personalities.

“Like this year: Tomáš Hanus is a great conductor, but for some reasons he wasn’t present in Czech orchestras or theatres. And he made a tremendous career in Cardiff.

“So we are very proud to invite him with his orchestra.

“And I think he is very proud that he can play My Country, because the Welsh nation and the Czech nation have a lot of common historical points we share.

“We are both proud of our countries.”

“Many international conductors refuse to conduct Má vlast – they say the first four movements are fine, but the last two we don’t understand.”

Maybe this is an ignorant questions, but how much do the different renditions of My Country vary? If I played you the previous five or six, would you be able to identify them?

“Classical music is very different to popular music.

“Because when you have some three-minute song, it’s usually very strongly connected with the artist.

“I think nobody performs songs by Queen better than Freddie Mercury.

“But in classical music with the investment of the author and the broad variety of themes and approaches that interpreters can make, classical music lovers can notice the differences – in tempo, in phrasing, in accents.

“With Má vlast – which is a very typical and patriotic piece but has the power to be translated into the experience of many other nations – I’m always very curious to hear what the approach of conductors will be in building the whole cycle.

“Because it’s not only Vltava: the whole cycle creates a big arc and there are the last two, very tricky movements.

Pavel Trojan | Photo: Michael Erhart,  Czech Radio

“Many international conductors, for some reasons, refuse to conduct Má vlast – they say the first four movements are fine, but the last two we don’t understand.

“So I think the last two movements are very essential for the whole cycle.

“And with Tomáš Hanus and his orchestra, we went to visit a performance of Má vlast by the Welsh orchestra this January.

“I was at the rehearsals with a group of patrons of the festival and journalists, and I was struck how works, how Tomáš rehearses.

“There is great concentration and I think it is very inspiring for the Czech audience, but also Czech musicians, to see how the British orchestra has something different in the way they rehearse and how they perform.”

“I’m trying to keep an hour a day, at night, to write music.”

Getting back to you, you do so many different things: You’re a conductor, composer, musician, teacher, occasional actor. With your current job, do you now have any time for anything apart from Prague Spring?

“I’m trying to keep an hour a day, at night [laughs], to write music. Because I need it for my life.

“And I think all my previous professions give me a good background or base for the job I’m doing now.

“Because the director of the festival must have a broad range of interests.

“I have some bits from music and some bits from management.

“And I think the world of acting is very important for the festival as well, because one of the main missions of the director is to seek new partners, new donors, and you have to convince them that our festival is the best.

“So you can’t be a modest person.”

So you have to use, or you do use, your acting skills also to charm potential sponsors?

“I try to charm, yes.”