Travel is a loose concept, not bound by physical space or time, whereas a journey always implies a specific starting point and destination. The Bamberg Symphony, with its Chief Conductor Jakub Hrůša at the helm, are on a journey of discovery in the coming concert season, eager to explore with their audiences connections with tradition, but always from the perspective of new contexts. The central idea is making people curious about the pathway ahead.

Jakub Hrůša
© Marian Lenhard

Everything about Bamberg is remarkable. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it boasts its own splendid concert hall – exceptional for a town of just 78,000 inhabitants – and has probably the highest percentage rate of subscribers per population anywhere in the world, namely ten per cent. In my conversation with Hrůša I am keen to discover what makes this place and its orchestra so special for him. 

“When I took over from Jonathan Nott in 2016,” he explains, “I found the orchestra in great form, with a clear identity and a very positive mood. This was the case not only among the players but also between them and management too. There was therefore no need to introduce any significant changes.” Using the metaphor of a marriage, Hrůša goes on to say that all he had to do was simply to accept the orchestra the way it was, and still is. “My players are an amazing collective of people,” he declares, adding: “I’m a very happy husband to the Bamberg Symphony.” He then neatly sidesteps the issue of how big his own contribution has been in the past five years: “That’s for others on the outside to judge.”

The environment he found himself in was already very conducive to music-making of the highest order. In Bamberg, unlike “the fast food frenzy” he often finds elsewhere, there is no haste or rush to deal with the next pressing event. Using the analogy of cooking, he elaborates: “You need to keep the food in the oven long enough to cook everything to perfection.” It brings to mind a famous African proverb which elucidates the kind of journeys that matter to him: “If you want to travel fast, then travel alone. If you want to go far, travel together.”

In Bamberg, journeys are always planned together, Hrůša explains. “Though I choose all the works I wish to conduct, I am of course also involved in the planning stage of every season. This is the primary responsibility of the orchestra’s general manager or Intendant, Marcus Rudolf Axt. There is in any case a lot of input from the players, because they are more aware of parts of the repertoire they haven’t played for a while. The subscribers also have a voice in what they would like to hear.”

The journeys have been increasing as of late, both in number and distances travelled, albeit with a temporary halt during the pandemic. Hrůša has succeeded in raising the orchestra’s international profile with a high element of touring, not only within Europe but also farther afield, in person and on digital platforms. For example, in March 2022, the orchestra will participate in the 50th Hong Kong Arts Festival with various online streams. This will mark 40 years after the Bamberg Symphony first appeared there, thus helping to mark the Festival’s own half-century. Previous recordings as well as those already in the pipeline are placing the name of this small city in Franconia firmly on the map.

The Bamberg Symphony
© Andreas Herzau | Bamberg Symphony

Critics sometimes have an irritating habit of honing in on cliché descriptions that attach themselves to individual orchestras, like barnacles clinging to the hull of a great seagoing vessel. I couldn’t resist asking Hrůša about the much-touted “Bohemian sound” of his orchestra. “I don’t need to work on it at all,” he says, “it’s just there”. In countering the lazy cliché, he also draws a distinction between the Czech Philharmonic and orchestras in his home town of Brno, where the sound is leaner and less lush, more attuned to the works of Janáček for instance. “What matters to me is beauty of sound, rather than sharp-edged attack. I have myself noticed in orchestral auditions held in Bamberg that technical excellence is not necessarily the chief consideration. New members need to match both the existing way of phrasing and how players interconnect with one another. As a result, idioms, rhythms, phraseology and the background to understanding each work are handed down from the older generation to the new.”

He tells an interesting anecdote to exemplify the innate feel the Bambergers have for the kind of sound with which they are traditionally associated. Invited to this year’s Lucerne Festival to give a concert devoted entirely to contemporary works, the orchestra played a new work by Hrůša’s contemporary, Miroslav Srnka, who is anything but a sentimentalist and whose music is far removed from any Romantic tradition. At the end of the final rehearsal, Hrůša recounts that Srnka stood before the orchestra and confessed to feeling slightly awkward. Having previously regarded talk of the Bohemian sound as a cliché and little more than a marketing ploy, he had been moved to hear the very sounds of his own childhood reflected in the orchestra’s playing. For Hrůša there is a much more salient factor at work here: it is the inter-connectedness of the central European tradition, where Bavaria, Bohemia and Austria are very closely related. Orchestras do not necessarily all sound the same but they undoubtedly draw on a common heritage.

One of the names that leapt out at me from the orchestra’s new season was Josef Bohuslav Foerster, whose Fourth Symphony is being played both in Bamberg and on tour. Listen to the opening movement of this C minor symphony and you hear echoes of Dvořák’s Seventh. Hrůša is happy to expand on other points of reference: “There are also thematic and structural links to Brahms’ First, Suk’s Asrael and Mahler’s Second Symphonies. And do you know what I discovered from reading Foerster’s memoirs? He was one of Mahler’s few close friends, just a year older, and it was Foerster who, seeing Mahler struggling to complete his 'Resurrection' Symphony, actually suggested the choral ending to him.” I ask why it is that Foerster still crops up so rarely in concert programmes. “Foerster was considered old-fashioned when he wrote his music. At the time, each new symphony was expected to represent a step forward. He wasn’t like that. He was deeply religious and spiritual. He hated all showy effects. But he was out of step with what was considered to be modernity. That was also true for the decades that immediately followed. And then during the years of communism he was put into cold storage. Religiosity wasn’t wanted. Even Supraphon was limited in the works of Czech heritage that it was able to record.”

Hrůša’s dedication to showcasing more forgotten names from the past is part of his determination to make musical connections in context much clearer. So Foerster is matched with Mahler and Richard Strauss in one concert programme; Vítĕzslav Novák’s Lady Godiva Overture sits next to Korngold’s Violin Concerto and Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances in another. Hans Rott’s Symphony no.1 in E major rubs shoulders with Mahler (who was inspired by some of the older man’s ideas) and Hugo Wolf; Rott’s work is also featured in the Bambergers’ “Education on Tour” programme directed at students above the age of 14, and is one of the forthcoming recording projects. I ask about the rarely played Novák overture. “It is programmatic music in the best sense,” Hrůša explains. “In its powerful and energetic opening and serene conclusion it follows a similar trajectory to Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung. So there you have the kind of connection I’m hoping to make for audiences.”

Hrůša is also tackling some of the big beasts in the repertory, notably Mahler Ninth and Bruckner Ninth, as well as the former’s “Resurrection” Symphony. I suggest to him that there are two schools of thought when it comes to younger conductors attempting such iconic works: those who insist that maturity is essential and those who point out that the earlier such works are attempted, the easier it is to gain the necessary experience to do justice to them. Hrůša gives a characteristically perceptive reply. “Yes, I can see and understand both sides of that argument. But there’s something else that is just as important. My orchestra and I are a team. So I’m not the only one shaping the piece. It’s the orchestra with its wisdom and experience of playing such works that contributes to a sense of collective maturity.” He has the humility to accept that a conductor can never achieve even a near-perfect interpretation at the first or even the tenth attempt, yet feels that experience gained from conducting other types of music can play a useful role in guiding his own approach to the big beasts.

Another of the iconic names in this season’s fold is Wagner, a composer that Hrůša is keen to explore further. He will be conducting his third Wagner opera, Lohengrin, at Covent Garden in the spring of 2022, and in his final subscription concerts in Bamberg will be assaying Lorin Maazel’s 1987 realisation of The Ring without Words.

So, in its 75th year, things are looking good for the Bamberg orchestra and its enterprising Chief Conductor. The direction of travel is clear; the journeys already planned full of promise; the sense of eager anticipation keenly felt. Not to forget: roads less travelled are sometimes just as picturesque as the standard highways.

Click here to see the Bamberg Symphony's future events.

This article was sponsored by the Bamberg Symphony