Tomáš Netopil’s concert with the Czech Philharmonic this coming January offers a crash course in his native country’s symphonic repertoire – showcasing lesser known works by 19th and 20th-century Czech giants Dvořák and Janáček, right through to the present day with a world premiere by Miloš Orson Štědroň.

Tomáš Netopil
© Petra Hajska

The program includes Dvořák’s 1878 Slavonic Rhapsodies, Janáček’s 1920 symphonic tone poem The Ballad of Blaník and Štědroň’s Bimetal, a double concerto unusually scored for two trombone soloists and orchestra.

I spoke with the personable conductor just as he was about to go into the pit to lead Grand Théâtre de Genève’s production of Kátya Kabanová at Janáček Festival Brno this past November. I wanted to understand more about his connection to his native repertoire, his championing of it outside the Czech Republic, and his thoughts about the future of new Czech music.

Asked about the development of a distinctly Czech school of classical music, Netopil was quick to point out its origins in the 18th century: “This period was quite serious for all the population, even somebody studying to become a carpenter would have had to study music. Music was part of daily life, coming to church three or four times per week, the service was always very active for people – they had to play an instrument, they had to sing.”

Tomáš Netopil and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
© Petra Hajska

In the 19th century, this strong tradition of everyday music-making came together “with a national pride: this feeling of Czech music, of folk music coming into the classical music world, which we can see in Smetana, using dances and folk songs. Even in its instrumentation, with the strong combination of strings and woodwinds, clarinets, and then transforming them slowly to the more sophisticated orchestration of Dvořák.” Indeed the haunting harp solo that opens Dvořák’s third Slavonic Rhapsody in Netopil’s program seems directly inspired by the even more famous solo that launches Smetana’s paean to his nation, Má Vlast.

When it comes to Janáček’s The Ballad of Blaník, the conductor sees it as a transitional piece, still linked to the tone poems written by his Czech predecessors, Smetana and Dvořák. Netopil points out it is from the “first period of Janáček’s composer life – it’s a more Romantic piece, we can really feel the horizontal line of the music. It’s very tonal, without Janáček’s typical later interruption of the music or fragmented themes.”

Given we spoke while Netopil was in Janáček’s hometown, about to present one of his iconic operas with a foreign orchestra (the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande) and non-Czech opera troupe from Geneva, the conversation naturally turned the pressures of performing Janáček in Brno. “Yeah,” Netopil chuckled, “last week was Kátya Kabanová from the National Theatre in Prague. And now we play the same piece. Of course, it's… not really pressure, but it is special. It’s a special feeling for me as a Czech, or a Moravian, to come to my home, bringing this orchestra. It was an adventure for me also, because I was present during the whole process with the orchestra, the Suisse Romande, digging into the story and the style, and the difficulties of the piece”.

What are the challenges of conveying the very specific stylistic demands associated with Janáček to a non-Czech orchestra? “I mean, the basic problem,” laughs Netopil, “is that these kinds of orchestras like the Suisse Romande want to sound really beautiful. And it’s something that sometimes we really don’t need in Janáček. Characters like Kabanicha, or Dikój [in Kátya] really need the musical support of the language, and then I had to tell them, ‘Okay, please, we need to really forget your culture and add just a little bit more jump on the strings, to really create a little bit more articulation, nastier sounds.’”

Kátya Kabanová at the Prague National Theatre
© Zdeněk Sokol

As Principal Guest Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, Netopil is ideally placed to dig deep into the works of the great Czech composers like Dvořák and Janáček and transmit his ideas about how to play them authentically when working with orchestras outside the Czech Republic. Often he finds it comes down to “articulation which is not exactly written in the music, but you have to convey how to play the smaller rhythmical themes or structures, which are again connected to folk music. They need to feel that it's like jazz, you have to somehow show them how to feel that.”

Netopil has had many opportunities to do just that in his various permanent and guest roles. At the end of this season, he celebrates his tenth and final season as General Music Director of the Aalto Musiktheater and Philharmonie Essen. Being responsible for the overall programming of a busy German opera house and orchestra “was absolutely a huge step for me,” he says, “because, it's not only symphonic music, but it's also opera, taking care of the dramaturgy for a period of ten years in my case.”

“It brought me a lot of experiences,” Netopil continues, “possibilities to conduct new pieces, new operas and also to bring Czech music to the [Essen] orchestra. That was also my personal task. We also came to the Czech Republic. We were twice at the Dvořák Prague Festival, and now we are coming to the Prague Spring Festival.” Netopil and his Essen Philharmonic Orchestra will visit the famous festival next spring with Frank Peter Zimmerman playing Elgar’s Violin Concerto as well as an outing of Dvořák’s Symphony no. 5. He stresses it is “part of my plan to not just play the Eighth or Ninth symphonies, but to bring something that’s not usually played.”

Netopil doesn’t miss an opportunity to promote Czech repertoire wherever he conducts. For concerts with Japan’s Yomuri Nippon Orchestra in December he included the great Janáček rhapsody Taras Bulba. This coming April with Orchestre National de Montpellier he will not only lead Dvořák’s Symphony no. 6, but introduce French audiences to a newer piece, Palingenia (2015) by Slovak composer Ľubica Čekovská. The piece is inspired by the life of mayflies, the most ancient winged insects on Earth, whose larvae live for three years, hatch, reproduce in flight and die a few hours later. Netopil originally commissioned the piece for his Essen troupe.

This brings us to the third piece in Netopil’s program with the Czech Philhamonic, Miloš Orson Štědroň’s Bimetal. When we spoke, the conductor had only just received the score and noted this would be his first time working on a piece by the Brno-born composer. Like the famous Czech predecessors with whom he shares this program, Štědroň writes for the stage as well as the concert hall. His award-winning music-theatre piece Velvet Havel, inspired by the life of Czech statesman, author, poet, playwright and former dissident Václav Havel, premiered in 2014, launching a six year run of two hundred performances which only ended in 2021.

Netopil cites the important role the Czech Phil plays in commissioning new works. For his 2021 New Year’s concert with them, he led the world premiere of Jan Kučera’s Concerto grosso for two violins, cello and orchestra. In 2014, the orchestra launched an annual young composers’ competition, initiated by the late Jiří Bělohlávek (Chief Conductor from 2012–17), while its current Music Director, Semyon Bychkov, has commissioned nine Czech composers to write works for the orchestra alongside five international composers, to be premiered over the forthcoming seasons.

Tomáš Netopil and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in the Rudolfinum, 2020
© Petr Chodura

This coming spring, as his tenure in Essen comes to an end, Netopil will premiere a new opera there, Dogville, by German composer Gordon Kampe, based on the controversial 2003 film by Lars von Trier starring Nicole Kidman. “Contemporary music, it’s very much around me. I definitely support our composers, which is very important.”  Tomáš Netopil’s commitment to new music and to Czech composers both new and old, is clear from his programming choices as he continues to forge a fascinating international career.

This interview was sponsored by the Czech Philharmonic.