Yo-Yo Ma launches Dvořák Prague music festival

Yo-Yo Ma, photo: CTK

Legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma opened the eighth annual Dvořák Prague international music festival at Prague’s Rudolfinum on Monday night. The world renowned musician, accompanied by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra with Jiří Bělohlávek at the helm, received a standing ovation for his performance of Dvořák’s famous B minor cello concerto. We spoke to the head of artistic planning for the festival, Guy Borg, about this year’s event.

Yo-Yo Ma, photo: CTK
“First of all it's a tremendous honour for us, of course, to have Yo-Yo Ma perform for us in our opening concert. He is considered by many to be the greatest living cellist, and I think rightly so.

“In terms of the repertoire for the concert, he is going to play Dvořák’s famous B minor cello concerto, which has become something of a signature piece for Yo-Yo over the years. He has performed the concerto I think hundreds of times and has an extremely close relationship to that piece and to Dvořák as a composer in general.

“He expressed a clear wish to perform the piece and he is thrilled to have the chance to perform it with the Czech Philharmonic and Jiří Bělohlávek at the Dvořák Hall at Rudolfinum. I think it will be a special event.

I believe that is not the only piece by Dvořák that will be heard that evening.

„That’s right. The concert is also part of what we call our Dvořák Collection which is one of our festival lines which we begun last year and we played all of the odd numbered symphonies of Dvořák and this year we are completing the cycle by playing all the even numbered symphonies.

“At the opening concert there will be a rare opportunity to hear Dvořák’s Second Symphony which is not often played and it makes the concert potentially all the more remarkable.”

For the first time in history of Dvořák Prague, people will also have a chance to hear a live broadcast of the concert.

“Dvořák’s famous B minor cello concerto has become something of a signature piece for Yo-Yo Ma over the years and he expressed a clear wish to perform the piece.”

“That’s right. The concert will be being broadcast live simultaneously on a big screen in the Wenceslas Square, so there will be a chance even for those who weren’t able to get the tickets to participate a little bit in the festival atmosphere and to follow the concert, which will also be broadcast on Czech television.

That was the opening concert but the festival started a day earlier on Sunday night. Can you tell me more about it?

“This is a concert that is part of our series called On the Trail of Dvořák where on the eve of the festival every year we take a special trip to a place outside Prague associated with Dvořák, which this year is Vysoká u Příbramě.

“Part of the programme which this year is Vysoká u Příbramě where part of the programme is going to take place at the Rusalka Villa which still belongs to the Dvořák family and which Dvořák visited many times during his life.

“This will be paired with a special concert in a rather beautiful little church in the village of Třebsko which is a church donated the church organ so it is another place which is rich in resonance composer.

Apart from Yo-Yo Ma who will be the biggest stars to perform at the festival this year?

“Apart from Yo-Yo-Ma there is I would say quite a range of outstanding soloists. We have for example the violinist David Garret, who is also going to perform with the Czech Philharmonic. The Philharmonia orchestra of London will be appearing at the festival with Christoph von Dohnány who is of course an absolutely legendary conductor who will be just having celebrated his 80th birthday.

Arvo Pärt, photo: Woesinger, CC BY-SA 2.0
And the Philharmonia Orchestra of London is actually not the only London ensemble that we are featuring at the festival, because a day later on Sunday 13 we welcome the renowned Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields orchestra and the soloist will be the magnificent clarinettist Sabine Meyer.

You will also be marking the 80th birthday of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.

“This is a concert that I personally am looking forward to very much indeed. It will be taking place in St Vitus cathedral at Prague Castle, so obviously a magnificent setting.

“We couldn’t really be blessed with better interpreters of the music of Arvo Pärt than we have at the festival, which is the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, who have won Grammys for their recordings of Pärt’s work in the past. They will be conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste, who is actually the founder of that choir and anyone who has heard them I am sure will now that a very special, perhaps even profound experience awaits them at the concert.

One of the festivals aims is to showcase some of the finest young musicians from the Czech Republic and abroad. Who will make their debut this year?

“You are right that we like to give a platform to outstanding and up-and-coming young performers and it’s very important for us that we give them a major stage. So we have faith in them and we put them on the stage at the Dvořák Hall in Rudolfinum.

“We have a day which we call D-day or Debut Day which is devoted to them and this year there will be two recitals from outstanding young musicians. One of whom is the Italian wunderkind Federico Colli, a recent winner of the prestigious Leeds International Piano Competition, who will be performing a recital.

Federico Colli, photo: YouTube
“And after his recital will follow another one by Czech violinist Jan Mráček, who is perhaps one of the most accomplished young home-grown musicians who is also the recent recipient of a prestigious award, the Chrysler Award in piano.”

Another section of the programme is devoted to chamber music and that is curated by young Czech pianist Ivo Kahánek. What will be on the programme this year?

“Yes, we are very happy to be working together with Ivo on the programme. The Chamber Series has really already established itself as one of the major components of the festival. One of the aims of the Chamber Series is to create a sort of meeting point of Czech and international artists.

“To that end we'll see legendary international ensembles such as the Emerson String Quartet who are performing on September 8 at the opening concert of the Chamber Series as well as some of the leading Czech musicians such as Ivo himself who will be performing a recital with the Lobkowicz Trio.

There will be a very interesting meeting of Czech and international artists at the closing concert of the Chamber Series when the Tetzlaff Quartet will be performing Dvořák piano quintet with our curator Ivo Kahánek.”

You also devote on of the days of the programme to families. What have you prepared for them?

“Our family day this year will feature Classic Buskers a British musical comedic duo who will be joined by a magician Neil Henry for a programme they call Musical Magic which will be a lot of fun, quite possibly a lot of mayhem as well. It’s a programme they perform all around the world and for the first time we are happy to be introducing it and presenting it in Prague.”

“We couldn’t really be blessed with better interpreters of the music of Arvo Pärt than we have at the festival, which is the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.”

Last year you put on the world premiere performance of Dvořák’s first opera Alfred. Have you got any surprise in stock for this year?

“I think in terms of major surprises you mentioned earlier the concert On the Trail of Dvořák on the eve of the festival so there will be a chance to hear some lesser known Dvořák works at that concert. Alfred was of course a major undertaking and in the future we hope to return to other operas by Dvořák, including lesser performed operas.

“There will be an opera on the programme this year as well, but we turn to international operas this year and we have a performance of Don Giovanni with Freiburger Barockorchester and the great conductor René Jacobs at the helm. Obviously this is a work which has very close association with the city of Prague and I believe we are going to have a chance to hear it at the very best level of interpretation.”