Zdenek Macal: a whirlwind about to hit the Czech Philharmonic

Šéfdirigent České filharmonie Z cal

Zdenek Macal is one of the most celebrated Czech conductors, and for the next three seasons he will be succeeding Vladimir Ashkenazy as chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. During a long career, much of it spent in the United States, the 66-year-old Zdenek Macal has conducted many of the world's great orchestras, and his achievements with the Milwaukee and New Jersey Symphony Orchestras have been a classic American success story. So how will he bring his legendary energy and enthusiasm to bear on one of Central Europe's most renowned cultural institutions? It certainly will not be an easy job. He will be under close scrutiny at a time when a number of musicians and critics are claiming that the Czech Philharmonic is beginning to lose some of its shine. He spoke with David Vaughan, who began by asking him how he felt to be back in the city he left after the Soviet invasion of 1968.

"Now I am finally back in the place where I started thirty years ago. It's a great feeling."

At the press conference today, you said that Czech musicians have a way of playing Czech music which is in some way special - different from the way that orchestras around the world perform. Could you explain what you mean by that?

"You know, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra already brings me the basic sound, which is the beauty of the strings and the legato, and especially the singing of the music, and it is very natural, because I believe that we Czechs - or we Slavs - we are born with this musicality. So basically, what I have to teach the other orchestras is how to feel the Czech music, how to feel the dance. It's already there, so I move my hands and they just do it. So that's the fascinating thing."

And you're going to be with the Czech Philharmonic for the next three seasons. Where do you want to take the orchestra?

"You know, we started on a very high level, but it doesn't mean it stays like this. Basically it is like in business, you have to just prove every day that you try to play better. The concert tomorrow has to be better in small things and in big things, but has to move up, it's the only way - up."

And you've come in here with a lot of energy, with a style which isn't typical in this country. There is often a degree of skepticism, a degree of reserve. Also the Czech Philharmonic is known for being quite merciless to people the musicians don't get on with. Are you afraid that you might get unstuck, that you might get into conflict with your colleagues?

"I am never afraid. My lifestyle, my music-making is just about joy. And you enjoy with me or we'll leave it, you know. But I'm not afraid because I have no reason to be afraid, because the musicians are so great. So they just have to show me. I stretch my hands and I show you what I want, and you just respond. And you respond with a beautiful sound, then you inspire me, and I give it back. Of course, I hear now: Why try? It doesn't work...' OK, but that for me is not the answer, you know. The point is that if there's something not good, tell me, and let's try together. I do it and if you would like to help me, help me please. Let's do it together and let's do it with other people. That's the energy, that's the spirit. We cannot just say: It doesn't work so we'll leave it how it is.' The world will never change, you know."

You can hear a longer interview with Zdenek Macal, in Encore, on Saturday 22nd February.