You’ve been conducting the Philharmonia since 2011. Please describe its qualities as an orchestra and what you enjoy about making music with them.
I remember my first encounter with them as if it were yesterday. I came from overseas, exhausted and jet-lagged, scared how limited the time we’d have was. And a little miracle happened. The rehearsal process was one of the most refreshing I’d experienced, very receptive from the players, friendly, professional, inspiring. But that was just an appetizer for the performance. Repeatedly, I was thrilled during the concert – discovering the potential of the orchestra, again and again, that was a real treat! The Philharmonia’s qualities are countless. But I’d stress their team feeling, speed of understanding, always giving maximum quality in the performance; their sense of humour... and now, their friendship.
Understandably, you’ve been engaged to conduct a lot of Czech repertoire with the orchestra thus far – Dvořák, Suk’s Asrael, Janáček. On what do you focus to try and draw a ‘Czech’ sound from a British orchestra? Is it the warmth of the strings? Woodwind phrasing?
It’s a tricky question. I wouldn’t say I’m trying to draw a ‘Czech sound’ from a British orchestra. I’m trying to inspire (rather than to draw) a sound which is theirs, and yet suiting the repertoire we’re playing at the moment. But you are right that the warmth of the strings, the proper cantabile of the melodic line, natural breathing (I generally love indicating clearly where each phrase goes) – those are important items in building a typical Czech (or Slavic) piece of music. However, surprisingly one sometimes has to influence non-Czech orchestras in the opposite way from what many people would expect: against sentimentality, self-indulgence, lack of balance; therefore, sometimes simply more towards structure, rationality, clarity. And the Philharmonia Orchestra has precisely those qualities – taste, refinement, precision – to be able to hold all of these aspects in a perfect balance.
Together with Finnish conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali, you have just been appointed Principal Guest conductor. What will your role mean in practical terms?
In the coming season, you’re conducting Smetana’s Má vlast at the Royal Festival Hall. Can you explain, for non-Czechs, the significance of this cycle? Sometimes, particular movements – Vltava, Vyšehrad, From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields – are extracted for concert programmes. Tábor and Blaník are performed less often. Is this because they are weaker pieces? What would you say to advocate performances of the whole cycle?
Please forgive me: I don’t think there’s anything better that I could say than that the whole cycle is a real piece of genius (there’s no similar achievement in the genre worldwide throughout history), and the only and main problem is that it’s in the shadow of its No. 2 (Vltava/Moldau) on the one hand, and that it may be charged so much with national pride and love for the composer’s country, geographically and culturally, that it can sometimes become overwhelming. Indeed, Tábor and Blaník (Nos. 5-6) are less known – but to be honest, in some ways, they are even stronger than the previous ones, very daring, very modern in form and content. Unlike the previous four, the last two were clearly conceived for the whole cycle (the previous ones were first meant as separate poems), and one can feel that. Smetana had a great instinct for form, for tectonics. It’s amazing how coherent and unified this cycle of almost 90 minutes is. It only speaks out when it’s performed in entirety and at best without a break. So what is the significance of the cycle? It’s an ultimate and masterful achievement in music like nothing else, and it’s always received with thrilled enthusiasm by those who come to hear it in its complete form. It’s really not to be missed!
With the Bamberg Symphony, you spend a lot of time touring. The Philharmonia also takes its programmes on the road. What is the hardest thing about taking a concert to several different venues in a short space of time?
Probably two things: tackling each particular new acoustic (in the limited time available for sound-checks before each concert), especially in those halls where one hasn’t been before; and then keeping the performances artistically fresh if the tour is long and some pieces are repeated many times.
When you’re not preparing scores, how do you like to relax? Are there any particular things you enjoy doing when you come to London?
Relaxation means children, family for me now. There’s nothing more refreshing in the world. When I’m alone, I love reading. I read everywhere - sometimes even while walking (such as at airports - where one basically cannot escape losing precious time in endless queues). I’m fascinated by how much unlimited knowledge one can embrace about the miracle that is the cosmos. It’s hard for me to imagine how it’s possible that some people can get bored sometimes… I’ve never understood that. So – to be honest and personal – I often go to bookshops when I’m in London. Some of them are just great!
Article sponsored by The Philharmonia