The Charles Bridge, Prague
The Charles Bridge, Prague
Bedřich Smetana’s Má vlast (My Fatherland) occupies a very special place in the heart of Czechs. The patriotic cycle of symphonic poems depicts Vyšehrad (Prague’s castle), the flowing River Vltava and Bohemia’s countryside, along with stirring episodes from Czech legend.

Opening concert of the Prague Spring Festival: NDR Sinfonieorchester Hamburg © Prague Spring  | Zdenek Chrapek
Opening concert of the Prague Spring Festival: NDR Sinfonieorchester Hamburg
© Prague Spring | Zdenek Chrapek
Every year, the Prague Spring International Music Festival is launched in Smetana Hall with a performance of Má vlast and on 12th May 2016 (Smetana’s death) the 71st Festival begins exactly the same way. Different orchestras have had the honour of giving this opening concert over the years, but this time round it will be performed by the orchestra most associated with the work, the Czech Philharmonic.

The festival was the inspiration of the great Rafael Kubelík – Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic – and was first held in 1946 (the same year Leonard Bernstein made his overseas debut with the Czech Philharmonic) when the orchestra celebrated its 50th anniversary. Seventy years on, conducting honours fall to Paavo Järvi, who consistently garners positive reviews on Bachtrack, praised for his relationship with the Orchestre de Paris, where “twinkling eye contact and beaming smiles illustrated a collective relish for music making”. The opening concert should be one of the hottest festival tickets, so it’s good to know that Má vlast is repeated the very next evening.

Here is Kubelík, returning to Prague after the fall of the Iron Curtain, conducting Vltava at the 1990 Festival. 

Although there is little Dvořák in 2016, the music of a lesser celebrated Czech, Bohuslav Martinů, is strongly represented. His perky Sinfonietta “La Jolla”, an orchestral work which features a solo pianist, is on the bill for PKF Prague Philharmonia’s conductor Jiri Rosen's festival debut. Their concert also features Miloslav Kabeláč's Fifth Symphony. Kabeláč, whose work was silenced after the 1968 Soviet invasion, is rarely performed, so a couple of Czech rarities worth exploring here.

Smetana Hall for the opening of the 2015 Prague Spring International Music Festival © Pražské jaro | Zdeněk Chrapek
Smetana Hall for the opening of the 2015 Prague Spring International Music Festival
© Pražské jaro | Zdeněk Chrapek
Martinů’s surrealist opera Julietta, subtitled The Key to Dreams, has seen a rise in fortunes in recent years, with prominent productions in London, Zurich and Frankfurt. The bizarre plot involves a travelling bookseller, seeking a woman whose voice he once heard, who stumbles into a seaside town where none of the residents can remember their past. Prague’s National Theatre, which staged the opera’s 1938 première, presents a production by Zuzana Gilhuus.

Another Czech Phil concert celebrates the music of their Hungarian neighbours. Juraj Valčuha conducts a programme which includes Bartók’s colourful Concerto for Orchestra and Kodály’s Háry János Suite, which begins with a huge orchestral sneeze (signal – to Hungarians – that the following story is “absolutely true”!).

The Prague Spring Festival is not just a celebration of all things Czech though. Many international ensembles and soloists visit Prague and among the star turns in 2016 are the Berlin Staatskapelle and Daniel Barenboim who bring Bruckner’s mighty Fifth Symphony.

Daniel Barenboim © Holger Kettner
Daniel Barenboim
© Holger Kettner
Other international orchestras performing include the Singapore Symphony, who bring Chen Zhangyi’s new work of an ethereal symphony alongside more familiar fare by Mendelssohn, Ravel and Schoenberg. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, under Sakari Oramo, brings two programmes, including Janáček’s The Ballad of Blaník, providing a neat link to the sixth poem of Má vlast.

Other British visitors to Prague include the Academy of St Martin in the Fields with pianist Murray Perahia, plus the New London Consort whose programme The Tempest is a nod to Shakespeare in his 400th anniversary year.

If Early Music is your passion, then Czech group Collegium 1704 performing Purcell with Andreas Scholl should be a surefire winner. You should also investigate Spanish soprano Raquel Andueza performing an enticing programme with Al Ayre Español, and Belgian vocal ensemble Graindelavoix.

Chamber music and recitals are well represented in the 2016 festival. The Guarneri Trio’s Dvořák should be a treat, but the ticket everyone will want to grab – even though no programme has been announced yet – is a recital by veteran Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini whose interpretations have entranced listeners for decades. A newer talent who is proving a hot ticket is Seong-Jun Cho, fresh from winning the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw.

A true treat awaits all jazz lovers: 18 years old guitarist Andreas Varady, said by Quincy Jones to be “one of the most talented musicians on Earth”. His Prague debut is scheduled for 30 May, in the unique rooms of Forum Karlín.

For a full look at the Prague Spring International Music Festival listings, click here.

 

Article sponsored by Prague Spring International Music Festival.

 

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With the purchase of a 2016 Prague Spring ticket, you get:

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