Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša did not have much time to bask in the glow of his appointment in early September as new Chief Conductor of the Bamberg Symphony. A few days later he was at the Dvořákʼs Prague festival, leading the Czech Philharmonic in a performance of Szymanowski and Dvořák with soloist Piotr Anderszewski. Then he was off to Australia, where concerts in Sydney and Melbourne kicked off a fall schedule that will take him to Seattle, London, Reykjavik, Geneva, Ostrava, Amsterdam, Vienna – and to Bamberg, where he will conduct a program of Suk, Shostakovich, Berlioz and Tüür. 

Jakub Hrůša © Zbynek Maderyc
Jakub Hrůša
© Zbynek Maderyc
Before he left Prague, Hrůša took time for a wide-ranging interview at the elegant Aria Hotel, a favourite stop for visiting artists. He was thoughtful, articulate and effusive about his new job, which begins with the 2016/17 season. “I couldnʼt have imagined a better direction for my life and career,” he said. “It just feels totally right, and Iʼm very grateful.”

A native son of Moravia, the fabled home of Janáček that bridges Bohemia and Slovakia, Hrůša, 34, decided on a career in music as a teenager – too late to become a soloist on the piano or wind instruments he played, but ultimately the right choice. “Iʼm not the kind of person to sit at the piano for long hours practicing,” he said. “My interests are just too wide. Conducting seemed a better option.”

Private tutoring and an intensive self-study program got him admitted to Pragueʼs Academy of Performing Arts, where one of his instructors was Jiří Bĕlohlávek, who spent six years as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and is currently in his second stint as Chief Conductor and Music Director of the Czech Philharmonic. He proved to be both a great teacher and role model; Hrůša is now Permanent Guest Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, and in June he finished a seven-year tenure as Chief Conductor and Music Director of PKF – Prague Philharmonia, a chamber orchestra that Bĕlohlávek founded in the 1990s.

Hrůšaʼs cultural heritage and musical training dovetail neatly with the Bamberg Symphony, which traces its historic roots back to the ensemble in the pit for the première of Mozartʼs Don Giovanni in Prague in 1787. Recast during the Nazi occupation as the Deutsches Philharmonisches Orchester, the orchestra was uprooted at the end of the war and landed in Bamberg, where it not only found a welcoming home but became an integral part of the community. Today, fully one-tenth of the cityʼs 70,000 inhabitants are subscribers to orchestra concerts. And as Hrůša marvels, “When you enter a restaurant there, the first thing said is not what is being ordered, but ʻThis is the new music director after Mr Nott.ʼ”

When Marcus Rudolf Axt took over as Chief Executive of the orchestra two and a half years ago, finding a replacement for Jonathan Nott, who is concluding 16 years with Bamberg this season, was at the top of his list. To aid in the search he assembled a committee of 15 musicians who considered nearly 100 names before settling on half a dozen that Axt began inviting for guest-conducting appearances. Hrůša made his debut with the orchestra last December, conducting three performances of Smetanaʼs Má vlast.

“It was like a magic of mutual understanding without saying anything,” Axt said. “But he was conducting his core repertoire. So we said, okay, letʼs see what happens with different repertoire.”

That came in July, one month after Hrůša gave his farewell performance with PKF. In the meantime, Axt attended concerts that Hrůša conducted with other orchestras, talked to their players and management, and made calls to promoters, agents and festival directors to gauge Hrůšaʼs international profile and appeal. The latter is a key consideration, as the orchestra maintains its financial viability and global reputation by constant touring. Typically, it plays 40 concerts a season in Bamberg, another 30 throughout Bavaria and 30-40 abroad.

On 17 July, Hrůša led the orchestra in another performance of Má vlast at Herrenchiemsee. On 18 July, he conducted the concert that sealed the deal: a performance of Brahms, Beethoven, Dvořák and arias by Wagner, Weber and Lehár with vocalist Klaus Florian Vogt and pianist Khatia Buniatishvili at Bad Kissingen.

Bamberg Symphony © Michael Trippel
Bamberg Symphony
© Michael Trippel
“That was a revelation,” Axt said. “It was quite a complicated program just to manage and rehearse, but he handled it all smoothly. And artistically, the performance was impressive. So there was no doubt afterwards – not for him, and not for us.”

Hrůša was given a five-year contract with the possibility of an extension. He will make several guest-conducting appearances with the orchestra this season, then ease into his position the following season, leading six weeks of performances and providing input on about half the programming. Aside from more Czech music appearing on the schedule, Hrůša is not anticipating any major changes, at least not in the early going.

“The profile of the orchestra is already so strong, and the sound is so disarmingly beautiful, I want to take gentle care of it and be careful not to damage anything,” he said. “Of course, itʼs inevitable that my personal touch will be felt. But Bamberg also represents a wonderful new stimulus for me – all that contemporary music, and concert versions of operas, and its great Mahler tradition.”

While itʼs too early to say anything more definite, it seems an artistic balance has already been struck. “I really feel a mandate to be myself as the orchestraʼs leader,” Hrůša said. “They know who I am, my nature, my inclinations, my way of music-making. So this will be a marriage between two independent parties who are totally willing to work together to create something new.”

And for Hrůša, more than a job. “So much of the music business is like a chess game, moving people from point A to point B,” he said. “This doesnʼt feel like that. Yes, itʼs an appointment and a rational professional decision. But for me, there is something deeper. Itʼs an inspiration, a noble discovery.” 

 

Interview sponsored by Bamberger Symphoniker