“It seems like the way I breathe music and feel music is something which naturally feels very close to what they are expecting.” In September 2015, when it was announced that Jakub Hrůša was to be the next Chief Conductor of the Bamberg Symphony, he was just 34 – surprisingly young, you might think, to take on the top job at a major German orchestra. But after just two seasons in the job, it’s obviously an appointment that has delighted both parties, since the contract has been extended to run until 2026. “There’s a combination of factors behind this decision”, he tells me, “and also the plain thing that I'm happy there as a human being. I feel by instinct, by intuition, not only rationally, that it's a place that does good to me. I need and like busy cities, but being at a calmer place such as Bamberg, you reach something which is typical for festival activities, that people focus in a different way than during the season. Yet in Bamberg, this is the season – this is the place where you can really focus on a daily basis. And it’s a very beautiful place.”

Jakub Hrůša © Andreas Herzau
Jakub Hrůša
© Andreas Herzau

The relationship is founded on a mutual desire to explore and to build, with the orchestra “open personally to explore all possible details of music, all possible kinds of repertoire, all possible approaches, all possible layouts, all possible types of project.” But it’s also predicated on clocking in generous quantities of time together. When I point out that Hrůša is conducting an unusually large number of concerts with the Bambergers next year, he is clear that this is essential for him to achieve his goals. “Honestly, if there is a mutual conviction that the role of the Chief Conductor is not only to appear occasionally and squeeze out as much as possible from one week here and one week there, if the conviction is that the Chief Conductor is there to influence the orchestra profoundly, and if the orchestra is really convinced that their Chief Conductor is worth spending time with, then the only way to make the whole thing meaningful is to spend enough time. It means losing the time for other activities, that's the nature of things.”

I remind Hrůša that when we interviewed him in 2015, in between the announcement and the official start date of his Chief Conductor role, he praised the Bamberg sound as “disarmingly beautiful” and that he needed “to be careful not to damage anything”. That’s still valid, he says. “Actually, I have since forgotten that I said that, but I'm proud, because it's really what's needed. At the same time, it doesn't mean a strategy of ‘hands off’. Like every passionate conductor, I have an inclination to influence and to take the sound in my own direction, but at the back of my head there's always this respect to what exists already. My role is to influence and yet to preserve what's already a quality, and in Bamberg, there's so much of that quality that I wanted to be careful. Yet we found out that our aesthetic feelings and our inclinations in sound are very close, so the things I'm influencing are, it seems to me, considered right by the orchestra.”

I ask for an example. “If you want a phrase to have more of a Lieder or cantabile character, and yet not lose the structural vertical feeling in the string section, that takes much longer in other orchestras than in Bamberg, where there's a natural inclination to present the linear beautiful melodies like that. It's as if, when I am expressing what I want, I am materialising what they instinctively want themselves.”

Jakub Hrůša in rehearsal © Andreas Herzau
Jakub Hrůša in rehearsal
© Andreas Herzau

The commitment of time, he repeats, is key. “We prepare things very beautifully in the rehearsals, but in the concerts, we can really feel free to react on the situation at the moment. There's something that can really grow beautiful only when you spend enough time together and where there is a trust. One of the nicest gifts and rewards to me coming from my work in Bamberg is that pure joy of orchestral musicians: it's not so often the case that orchestral musicians live through every concert with this kind of joy. So I'm trying to be as scrupulous, as clear, precise, even pedantic in the rehearsal process. I try, honestly put, to train the orchestra. But then in the concert, I cannot be a trainer any more, or someone who controls. I'm not judging, then: the concerts for me, are a different category of experience than rehearsals, very free, open to what's happening, fit to react. This is something which seems to me works very well in Bamberg, and something which they like to explore together.”

“It's a very different culture in Germany. The orchestras are willing to work on things in terms of days, not hours. And that's a very precious thing, because more and more, in the West, everything is faster and faster, and people are used to putting programmes together in one or two days. In Britain, orchestras are actually amazing in how well they can do that, but I think there are different realms of quality which can be only reached if one spends enough time.”

The trust and ability to react are also essential for an orchestra that tours extensively and plays in different halls, which can sound very different from each other, but where you might get as little as half an hour to do a sound check. He’s still trying to figure out ways of managing the fact that the sound on the rostrum can be very different from the sound in the hall. In rehearsal, he has taken to choosing a passage which the orchestra can play without a conductor and going to listen from various places in the hall. “It's unnerving, because sometimes, it's shocking what you find out. You are very confidently saying something to the orchestra and then you go and you realise that actually, it’s not like that… There's this witty comment that the worst place to listen to the orchestra is on the conductor's rostrum. In the opera as well, in the pit, what a horrible sound! At least there, in 99% of cases, you can guarantee that it's better over there behind you, so if you're getting happy, it means it can be really beautiful for the audience…”

The 2018-19 season has not been forced into the straitjacket of a single unifying concept, which Hrůša feels would unduly restrict the freedom of each individual event. Rather, there are many threads which span multiple seasons. “We continue a project called ‘encores’: after a profound piece which occupies the second half of a concert, we finish with a short contemporary piece composed in reaction to it. Sometimes it's a very challenging, because one is exhausted after a Bruckner symphony, but it's something which keeps up with the current time."

Jakub Hrůša in concert © Andreas Herzau
Jakub Hrůša in concert
© Andreas Herzau

"We put one opera in concert every season. Last season’s Don Giovanni, in Bamberg and also at the Elbphilharmonie, was very successful and a revelation of what kind of beauty this orchestra can do in the field of early music. We're trying to explore Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s beautiful idea of playing all three last Mozart symphonies in one evening. I think it's a beautiful concept and will be an event for the orchestra and the public. There’s my personal Mahler cycle – I want to do all nine and Das Lied von der Erde during my time. I've done 1 and 2, now I've done 3 in Japan, which we will do again in Bamberg and also at Paris Philharmonie.”

“Of course, I was asked a million times about Czech music and Bamberg, because of the Czech or Bohemian heritage in the orchestra, but I don't want to overload the orchestra and its public with Dvořák symphonies etc. However, I decided to put on really interesting things which are not as well known outside the Czech Republic, but are worth it. Last season, Suk’s Asrael Symphony was received with great awe and admiration, so in the last concert of next season, we will play the next member of that whole cycle of big pieces by Suk, A Summer's Tale: it's a beautiful symphonic suite, similar in scope to Asrael. Last but not least, I have put together a new suite of Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen. There are suites which exist already, but this is longer and it creates the whole shape chronologically, going through all the ballet music, dramatic music, love music and the apotheosis.”

How much do Dvořák or Janáček’s Czechness matter? Or, for that matter, his as a conductor? He demurs: if someone hears their music and doesn’t know about the nationality, “if it's not the least sensitive person in the world, they would still consider it powerful music, so you don't need to be informed about the nationality to enjoy it. Of course, there are qualities rooted in the nationality, sources of inspiration for them in the Czech or Bohemian background, be it folk music or traditions of the previous generations, simply local culture.” As to himself, he simply points out that inevitably, “I've spent more time with that musical segment in the history of music than non-Czech conductors. That would be probably the main reason why I feel very close to it and why I feel as a natural advocate of that music, because I've lived with it since my childhood.” In any case, his tenure at Bamberg is blurring his own nationality, making him feel, “in a 19th-century way”, the unity of Central European culture. “It feels even nowadays the same region, just divided by different languages. I really feel much more Central European by birth. If you go from Brno, where I was born, to Vienna, you don't really feel much difference of landscape, a difference of mentalities. You rather feel just a difference of language. I feel nostalgic about an even closer relationship between German and Czech-speaking communities in that melting pot.”

Jakub Hrůša in rehearsal © Andreas Herzau
Jakub Hrůša in rehearsal
© Andreas Herzau

Bamberg have a long standing recording relationship with Bavarian Radio and Swiss label Tudor. Following Jonathan Nott’s Schubert and Mahler cycles, Hrůša’s first contribution has been Smetana’s Má vlast, and they have now embarked on a cycle pairing Dvořák and Brahms symphonies, working backwards from the last: the first CD, with Brahms’ Fourth and Dvořák’s Ninth, has already been recorded and will be released this autumn. “The cycle embodies somehow the combination of the orchestra and myself, the German music, the Czech music, but yet a real friendship between those two composers, such as the friendship between the orchestra and myself.”

Outside Bamberg, he’s keen to stress that the two orchestras where he is Principal Guest Conductor, the Czech Philharmonic and Philharmonia, mean a lot to him, that they are orchestras where he belongs to the community (his family life is divided between London, where his children are at school, and Prague). He’s also excited by what will be an intense fortnight next year, with debuts with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Bavarian Radio Symphony within a week of each other. Bamberg, however, remains his principal home professionally – as well as “my operatic home of Glyndebourne”.

The interview is being held during Proms season, and I can’t close it without asking him to say a few words about his mentor Jiří Bělohlávek, who died in May last year. What helped him get over the loss was the process of conducting his first Prom. “I'm not nervous when I conduct, but that concert was with 'his' orchestra, the BBC Symphony, and an all-Czech programme, so I felt, willy nilly, like an ambassador for Czech music at that point. It felt like quite a huge burden, coming to the BBC Symphony which I always met somehow in circumstances close to Jiří, and he was not there. Somehow, at the end of that concert, I switched into remembering him in a healthy way. He stays the biggest influence on myself.”

 

This interview was sponsored by the Bamberg Symphony.

Jakub Hrůša and the Bamberg Symphony © Andreas Herzau
Jakub Hrůša and the Bamberg Symphony
© Andreas Herzau