Prague Spring Music Festival in full bloom

Antoni Wit, photo: CTK

Spring has come again to Prague and with it the Prague Spring Festival. For those of you not in the know, think not flowers and spring showers, but rather Mendelssohn, Mozart, and the climax of the classical music calendar in the Czech Republic. Perhaps however classical music’s simply not your thing – in that case this is the classical festival for you. In Arts this week, Christian Falvey reports on the start of the three-week Prague Spring International Music Festival.

Roman Bělor
The Prague Spring Festival is the most successful progeny of a long struggle to create a lasting bond between the renowned talent of Czech and Slovak musicians and the best of the world’s best. That steady aim was the toil of some 70 years through instability, and culminated in the 1946 inauguration of the Prague Spring Festival. A common denominator, aside from the quality demanded, was a date in May, which the Prague Spring continues to honour with its annual commencement on May 12, the anniversary of the death of Bedřich Smetana. Roman Bělor, director of the Prague Spring International Music Festival:

“The festival was founded with an idea of creating a stable scene on which to compare local achievement in classical music with international stages and international soloists. So in the beginning it was founded as a festival of big symphonic concerts and recitals, later chamber music was added and in the course of the festival’s development it was extended to include early music, world music, jazz concerts. Nevertheless classical concerts – and especially symphonic concerts – are still considered the axis, or main line, of the festival.”

In the festival’s 64 years as a standard bearer, the decision to throw down the jazz/”world music” gauntlet to a traditionalist fan base was a big one, implemented gradually since the beginning of this century, and it garnered international attention. By releasing itself from classical festivals’ unwritten distain for what lays beyond its pale however, the Prague Spring Festival opened up to the wide world of “other” music, encompassing instrumental and ethnic genres, named and unnamed. And thus the Prague Spring Festival took on a new generation, one perhaps perfectly characterised by Václav Luks, the young conductor of the Collegium 1704 early classical music orchestra, which will be performing Handel’s Resurrection later this month.

Czech president Václav Klaus with his wife at the festival's opening,  photo: CTK
“We are regular guests of the Prague Spring Festival. Of course the Prague Spring Festival is the biggest festival in the Czech Republic, but for me it’s also very important that this festival is very open to a big audience because they do not only classical music and recitals but early music and jazz are also a very important parts of the programme, and the wide spectrum of the repertoire is typical of the Prague Spring and I think it’s very important. It is also the way to win new audiences, by being open, and this is characteristic of the Prague Spring Festival I think.”

The Prague Spring Festival is a place for pomp and circumstance to be sure, but only if that is what you’re looking for. While maintaining its august dignity and utmost respect for the gist of classical music’s conventional aura, the festival has managed to gear down the overbearing mystique that’s kept pop-art generations wary and aloof. And in being one of few such events to avow an interest in the goings-on of a rapidly developing world of music, the Prague Spring has seen new success by subtly redefining what’s expected of the visitor. Young listeners have responded in kind by taking interest. Such a deviation and its success however raises some fundamental questions: why the need to rely on modern music? Is it a sugar-coated pill? Is classical music – “serious music” as it’s called in Czech – simply too serious and too old-fashioned to reach young minds without a modern strut?

Photo: CTK
“I don’t think classical music is old-fashioned – compare it with galleries – no one coming to a gallery would call Rembrandt an old-fashioned painter. But I do agree that classical music should be presented in a modern way. So the image of a classical music festival must be modern, the festival must have excellent websites and we cannot insist on haute couture dress for the audience as it was in the past. We have to be more tolerant and we have to present classical music in a modern way. And of course we have to reflect the fact that people are interested or seduced by new waves of music; represented sometimes by jazz sometimes by world music. The young generation is very attracted by the music of other cultures, so this is something we are adding to the festival from time to time by drops. Nevertheless an excellent piano recital will never be old-fashioned if it is played well.”

Classical music will never lack for eager ears in Prague, but as Mr Bělor suggests, piano recitalists be warned; this is a discerning audience. The Czech Lands, as they’re sometimes called, could be surrounded by a musical abyss, and still have little to want for with their abundance of world-class talent and history. Czech music schools are renowned and continue to generate global celebrities the likes of mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená. Beethoven premiered his work here. Mozart premiered his work here – and not because Vivaldi did the same, but because, as he said to the eternal self-satisfaction of the Czechs, “My Praguers understand me”. Indeed, no Einstein would come to Prague and leave his violin at home... and Einstein didn't.

“I would say that we have perhaps a special situation among the cultural nations of Europe because we are a very small nation but we have a huge musical heritage. The Czech lands were considered in the 17th and 18th centuries as the conservatoire of Europe. There was a huge amount of composers and musicians feeding the international orchestras and musical schools. And of course we are happy to have big international authors, especially Dvořák, Smetana, Janáček, but also others Martinů, Suk, Fibich. So one of our duties is also to present Czech music and also sometimes to encourage foreign artists to come and present known or unknown Czech repertoires. This is something special; we are a small nation but with a big musical heritage.”

The Polish conductor Antoni Wit has been attending and playing the Prague Spring Festival for almost half a century. This year he had the honour of conducting the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra at the festival's opening performance, and honoured the people in turn with an impeccable performance of the nation’s most famous anthem, Bedřich Smetana's My Country, with which the Prague Spring commences every year. I asked him if Prague's noble music history is alive in performances today.

Antoni Wit,  photo: CTK
“Absolutely. I think it is absolutely true. I think that there are higher expectations on music in your city. For example the concert yesterday was live on TV, which is not so obvious nowadays, because TV prefers to do something on sport or something on show business. So this shows that classical music has weight and a reputation here. And of course it has something to do with history when so many outstanding musicians came to Prague and you had so many excellent musicians here – Czech, but also German speaking - and so it really was an important musical centre for several centuries, and it still is.”

It’s important to note that the Prague Spring Festival remains a key part of continuing that history. There simply are not Czech or Czechoslovak legends who have not passed through its gates, either on their way to fame or on their way home with their laurels, and with rising stars like soprano Martina Janková and sought after Czech conductors like Jiří Bělohlávek, that custom continues this year as well.

“We are giving a great space and an important chance to Czech and Slovak artists to be seen on festival stages. And this is something we feel is our duty. To give new impetus to the Czech and Slovak musical scenes and new impetus to local artists so they know which way the world is turning.”