Zdeněk Mácal: world-famous conductor who was nearly unknown at home
In today’s Sunday music show we’ll be commemorating the great Czech conductor Zdeněk Mácal, who passed away last week at the age of 87. During his long career, Mácal conducted more than 170 major orchestras in four continents, including the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Royal Philharmonic, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and the Chicago and Boston Symphony Orchestras.
Born in Brno in 1936, by the mid-1960s Mácal was already one of the most well-known Czech conductors, having won a number of international competitions, including the Dmitri Mitropoulos Competition in New York. He became the chief conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra in the autumn of 1967, but not long after, the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia caused him to emigrate to the West and continue his promising career abroad.
He first went to the Netherlands and it wasn’t long before he was getting engagements at some of Europe’s best orchestras. He became musical director of the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Hanover Radio Orchestra and was often invited to conduct in France and Italy.
From there he went further afield, to become chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and musical director of the Milwaukee and New Jersey Symphony Orchestras, as well as being guest conductor for some of the US’ best orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
However, during most of his time abroad he was all but forgotten in his homeland, with the communist regime trying to suppress news of emigres finding success in the West.
After the Velvet Revolution, Zdeněk Mácal finally returned to the country of his birth in 1996, becoming chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic in 2003. Due to disputes with members of the orchestra, he terminated his engagement prematurely after four years, but always praised it as an outstanding ensemble, saying there was no orchestra in the world that could match its interpretation of Dvořák.
Zdeněk Mácal often said that he lived a wonderful life. Besides music, he had two other passions – expensive cars (in the US he owned four Cadillacs), and his wife, by whose side he lived and created for more than six decades.