Prague Spring had one of the most memorable finales in its history this year, a stunning convergence of transcendence and sorrow. When Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki took the podium to conduct his monumental Symphony no. 7 “Seven Gates of Jerusalem”, he turned to the audience before assaying a single note and said, “I want to dedicate this to my friend Jiří Bělohlávek.” The Czech conductor had died just two days earlier, leaving the festival bereft of one of its guiding lights and Czech music without its leading practitioner and greatest exponent abroad.

Krzysztof Penderecki © Prague Spring | Ivan Malý
Krzysztof Penderecki
© Prague Spring | Ivan Malý

The “Jerusalem” symphony was not written as a requiem, but a powerful sense of the impermanence of life and divine presence in earthly affairs runs throughout the piece. Commissioned in 1995 to write a choral work commemorating the third millennium of the city of Jerusalem, Penderecki turned to the Bible for his text, splicing together lines from the Psalms and the Old Testament books of Daniel, Isaiah and Jeremiah, all sung in Latin. The sixth movement, taken from Ezekiel, is recited in Hebrew. Jerusalem’s central role in the world’s three great religions and the terrible grandeur of God are invoked, mostly at thunderous volume, by a large orchestra, three mixed choirs, five soloists along with a narrator, and a wind ensemble offstage. 

The heavens seemed to part in the opening blast of magisterial low tones from the orchestra and ringing choral praises for the Lord, setting a tone of overwhelming awe. As the soloists joined in over the course of the first two movements, the polyphony among the three women (two sopranos and a mezzo) and the subsequent interplay of female and two male (tenor and bass) voices was so vivid as to induce chills. Penderecki brought his own singers – all Polish, most of whom have worked with him previously in performances and recordings of the Jerusalem symphony. It’s difficult for individual voices to emerge from the tumult of sound, but soprano Karolina Sikora managed to stand out with one of the larger parts and exceptionally clear, expressive singing.

More an oratorio than a symphony (an appellation the composer decided only after the première), the piece roars on like this for nearly an hour – fervent, expansive, alternately reaching deep and soaring to celestial heights. Working without a baton and using short, fluid arm movements, Penderecki was able to draw out subtle shading in the sound, which at times almost vibrated with electric intensity. Had the proscenium at Smetana Hall rent like a Philistine temple in the Bible, it would not have been surprising. 

Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra © Prague Spring | Ivan Malý
Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra
© Prague Spring | Ivan Malý

Spectacle is part of the appeal of the piece, and in that this performance did not disappoint. Putting the offstage ensemble in a high balcony gave the impression of music descending from the heavens. Onstage, twin sets of enormous tubaphones flanked the orchestra. It was impossible to see them being played from most seats, nor was their sound distinguishable amid the high-volume percussion. But their imposing physical presence added to the atmosphere of otherworldliness. 

The Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra proved its mettle with modern music, and the Slovak Philharmonic Choir started strong and sounded increasingly passionate as the piece developed. Narrator Sławomir Holland, a veteran stage and screen actor, was like the voice of doom in the sixth movement, bringing the bones of the dead to life in amplified, apocalyptic tones.

Penderecki, who is 83, had to be helped on and off the podium, but there was nothing infirm about his conducting, which was masterful. He was ably assisted by Polish conductor Maciej Tworek, who led the offstage ensemble and conducted the opening piece, a spirited rendition of the Serenade for Orchestra by Iša Krejči, a 20th-century Czech composer noted for his sparkling neoclassical creations.

There will be other send-offs and memorials in the coming weeks and months for Bělohlávek, who is in many ways irreplaceable. He was president of Prague Spring and chairman of its Artistic Board, as well as chief conductor and music director of the Czech Philharmonic, an orchestra whose fading prestige and tattered reputation he did a great deal to restore in recent years. By fate or coincidence, Penderecki had the honor of offering the first tribute and set a high bar in reaching for the afterlife, where Czech music now has a new and devoted champion.