The Prague Spring Festival builds on its tradition of great music

Photo: www.festival.cz

Many visitors to Prague, as well as locals believe that the most beautiful month of the year is May. After the long cold winter, it is the month of pleasantly warm weather with lawns turning green and parks full of blossoming trees. Another thing associated with this month in Prague is music - it is the time of the famous Prague Spring Festival.

The festival originated in 1946 in the optimistic post-war atmosphere, as a celebration of classical music. While in the first year, all the orchestral concerts were played by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra which was celebrating its 50th birthday, later many other ensembles and musicians including many international stars performed at the festival. The Prague Spring has gradually become one of the most important showcases for outstanding performing artists, orchestras and chamber ensembles in Europe.

The current conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, Zdenek Macal, lived for a long time in the United States where he conducted a number of orchestras. He says Prague Spring Festival is very different from those he knows from the United States.

"Most of the festivals in the United States are more popular - mostly they take place outside for huge crowd. If you take the Hollywood Bowl or Tanglewood or Ravinia in Chicago, it is for a big crowd, it is mostly like a picnic and programs are not so heavy loaded. Sometimes they do play important and even contemporary music but the conception in general is based more on entertainment. Going back to the Prague Spring Festival - it is on the quite serious side."

Probably the most prestigious part of the Prague Spring Festival is the opening concert which takes place every year on May 12th. Since 1952 there is a tradition of performing Bedrich Smetana's Symphonic cycle "My Country" to start the festival. This year the opening concert was given over to a top British orchestra - the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davies.

Another very important event is the final concert on June 4th. This year it is going to be performed by the Bavarian Radio Orchestra - an ensemble which in the past used to be led by a very well known Czech conductor, Rafael Kubelik, says Festival Director Roman Belor.

"The final concert is going to be played by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with Mariss Jansons. This orchestra is close to our heart, because it profited from the fact that Rafael Kubelik lived in emigration. So this is the orchestra that was given the most important part of his artistic live, so we are happy to have this orchestra with its own Czech tradition."

"But speaking about foreign bodies, I have to mention also Sachsische Staatskapelle Dresden - one of the respected German Orchestras - and we are also happy to have our guest from Hungary - the Budapest Festival Orchestra with the conductor Ivan Fischer."

Angela Hewitt, photo: CTK
But it is not only famous orchestras which are performing at the Prague Spring this year. You can hear a number of famous singers or instrumentalists such as American jazzman Herbie Hancock or Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt.

Angela Hewitt is best known for her performances of Bach and Mozart, who also featured in her two concerts at the festival. While at the first concert she focused entirely on Bach's solo works, in the second...:

"In the other concert with the Prague Chamber Orchestra, I am playing and conducting from the keyboard two different concertos. One by Mozart - the concerto in B flat major, KV 450 which is not so often played but it's one of my favorites. It has that wonderful hunting finale to it. And than I'm playing Bach F minor concerto, his shortest but again one of the most beautiful ones with wonderful largo as the slow movement that he later transcribed into a cantata."

But the Prague Spring Festival is not just a series of concerts. It also involves an international competition for young musicians. The competition starts before the actual festival and is held every year in different instrumental sections. This year it focused on the harpsichord and string quartets. While the main award in the harpsichord section was given to Morwaread Farbood from the United States; the string quartet competition was won by a Czech ensemble - "Pavel Haas Quartet". Peter Jarusek who plays cello in the quartet, says they are a very young ensemble, founded just eight months ago. They see their achievement at the Prague Spring as a huge success that will help them to establish themselves.

"The success in this competition directly brought us some concerts for next season in very prestigious festivals in Holland, in France (Fountain Bleu), in Kuchmo....The Prague Spring Competition is not the biggest in the world but it is an international competition and it is very important to win it, especially for us. It is the biggest competition in the Czech Republic. Now a lot of musicians and promoters know us and that's a very important for us."

And what is the best way for an ensemble to achieve success? According to Peter Jarusek it is not just hard work but also good teamwork.

"It's necessary to be friends, not only in life but also in music. I think these are two very important parts of the quartet life. Of course, you have to work very hard. But if you are friends, it's much easier."

So the competition is over, the winners are known, but the festival itself is still in full swing. You can still enjoy concerts by the sitar player Anoushka Shankar, soprano Sabine Hogrefe and of course the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra performing Beethoven's "Eroica" and Dvorak's 8th symphony at the final concert on June 4th - alongside numerous other concerts.

If you want to know more about the program or the Prague Spring Festival in general, don't forget the website: www.festival.cz