Jakub Hrůša on Jiří Bělohlávek
In connection with today's sad news about the death of the great Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, we publish the text of the President of International Martinů Circle Jakub Hrůša from the previous issues of the Martinů Revue magazine.
It was sometime in 1996 or 1997 – I was still studying at the four-year grammar school on Kapitán Jaroš Avenue in Brno, preparing myself for my future, an unclear career in one of the dozens of possible spheres – when I first caught sight of Jiří Bělohlávek. I remember the moment as though it were yesterday. As a young music-lover, I used to attend the majority of the orchestral concerts in my native city, given by the Brno State Philharmonic Orchestra. Step by step, I developed a sense for distinguishing between the quality of the performances and, as an ardent adolescent, I never missed the opportunity to trumpet my opinions. That evening, however, I remained seated in the auditorium, all of sudden devoid of any of the juvenile criticism that I had disbursed until then with perhaps insufficient care. The performance of Schubert’s Unfinished and Beethoven’s Eroica far surpassed that which was regularly heard in Brno – an evaluation based not as much on my certainly perfunctory sense of judgment, but rather on the overall, essential feeling, intuition, which permeated me beyond the framework of my intellectual faculties. Today, it is not easy to express in words what exactly made the performance so forceful, yet the experience was a powerful one. On the next possible occasion, I gave vent to my impressions and conveyed them verbally. During a Czech lesson, we were asked to draw up an “open letter to XY”, that is, a publicly known figure. And in this essay, I wrote: “(...) Without the slightest exaggeration, I can say that your performance ‘totally’ engrossed me. I had never previously encountered such a natural execution, fraught with drama and vehemence, as well as emotion and tenderness, an execution so balanced and certain. Ever since, I have often given thought to how it is at all possible to perform music so precisely, as well as forcefully. (...)” The epistle continued with my expressing the desire to try, immediately after completing my grammar school studies, to pass the exams for the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, at which the addressee was teaching at the time, and thanks for, among other things, the aesthetic aspect of the maestro’s conducting (which had profoundly impressed me): “(...) Therefore, I utter my sincere admiration for your performance and thanks for giving me the inspiring example of your behaviour. (...)” Later on, Jiří Bělohlávek and I would frequently be compared as regards our conducting gestures, or more precisely, my gestures were said to mimic those of Jiří’s. Yet pointing is merely an exterior trait, one that intrigues at first glance. I think that the feeling of affinity was actually far deeper and, above all, immediate. For my part, I did not deliberately cultivate this influence – it simply “occurred” in an instant. Sometimes souls find each other more quickly than reason is able to comprehend.
Even though later on I was not spared temporary doubts, doubts that buffet everyone sincerely seeking one’s own identity, I soon regained the conviction that positive and live (!) models are a sound model for an evolving young person. And this also holds true later on, in other phases of our lives, with perhaps the difference being that everything becomes more subtle and more internal. One way or the other, having such a model before me was a great gift, serving as an extraordinary motivation, as it is put in the open letter, which is actually a ”diary entry” expressed outwards.
After enrolling at the Academy of Performing Arts, I didn’t have the chance to study with Jiří straightaway, but I did attend all his lessons. I will never forget our first more personal encounter, when Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 was being dealt with in the class. An extraordinary situation arose. Messrs Jaroslav Šaroun and Tomáš Víšek, who regularly played piano four hands, had failed to arrive, and actually only three persons were present: my older schoolmate Tomáš Hanák, Jiří Bělohlávek and I. So the maestro asked me to play the piano with him. It was simply lovely. Both of us struggled with Mahler’s ornate and dramatic score, each in a different way: Jiří , even though having a clear musical notion, grappling with a somewhat rusty piano technique, I ambitiously roaring in the demarcated bass space, albeit, more or less, lacking an insight into the music, fumbling. Well, I did my utmost. It was quite touching when Jiří began sincerely fretting about having failed to play some of the figurations appropriately. Regardless of the aspiring student, he simply interrupted his playing and started to practise several passages like etudes, testing his finger dexterity. His body language seemed to speak volumes: Why, it simply cannot be such a problem! Amid tense silence, my schoolmate and I (gladly) waited for the professor to ready himself, and then continued. I am still not sure to what extent the teacher was able to judge my conducting gestures during that lesson, yet I clearly recall how delighted I was when, after finishing the symphony, I felt an appreciatory tap on my back and heard Jiří thunder: “Well, you are a musician indeed!” Myriad official opinions could not have outweighed the maestro’s praise, which encouraged me, a freshman looking insecurely around, to continue to pursue the direction I had chosen.
When in that very same season I miraculously succeeded in the Prague Spring competition, in my first-ever attempt at conducting a professional orchestra, I plucked up the courage to ask to join Jiří’s class. I still remember the immense gratitude I felt after being told by Radomil Eliška, my then “form teacher”, that not only did he not bear a grudge but he even recommended the move. Consequently, in 2000, with his noble-minded blessing, I plunged into studies in the class of my model conductor.
Jiří was a strict teacher, yet he paid personal attention to every one of his students. He required discipline, all his lessons had a form, with constant references to practical performance. Only today am I fully able to appreciate just how much of his precious time spent in Prague he devoted to us. He always placed emphasis on the conducting gesture’s functional comprehensibility, clarity and – yes! – its aesthetic aspect, which, he claimed, should never outweigh the approach to the profession as a comprehensive whole. Perhaps it was there and then, at the Liechtenstein Palace, during the conducting lessons, at which Jiří addressed and regarded us not as mere beginners (which we truly were) but earnest artists, when something like my life credo started to form: strive for balance, equilibrium. While the other teachers were often single-sided, either too personal or too dogmatic, too benevolent or too aloof, Jiří was able to highlight all the aspects of the requirements placed on the conductor, including the officially totally omitted psychological factor. More and more have I grown aware of how unique an opportunity it was to constantly work with such a charismatic figure, a sincere teacher, who at the same time was enduring the heat of his demanding career. This is not, as I now know, customary around the world. When it comes to the majority of such distinguished conductors, they only spend a few hours teaching at master classes, and undergraduates are trained by professors, who are more educators than performing artists. I recall how illuminating it was to supplement our more or less theoretical knowledge gained at school with attending the rehearsals led by Jiří. He never forbade anyone to observe any aspect of his own work. His entirely justified self-confidence naturally allowed him to make himself potentially vulnerable, when some of his students could disclose his possible shortcomings, against which, as a teacher, he himself fought when setting the conducting ideal. And, indeed, there were a few who would occasionally make use of this opportunity.
Jiří also took his students abroad, where he spent more time than at home. There too we could observe his everyday work. I recall my stays in Leipzig and Vienna, the preparations for opera productions in Helsinki and Geneva. When he was in Prague, he passionately built up the emerging phenomenon titled the Prague Philharmonia. Sometimes he even rejoiced at the success of this “child” of his at the lessons. When he remembered a packed concert hall, his face suddenly lit up like the sun, and he broke into a wide smile: “To the very rafters!” (With a similar zest, he used to treat us all at the school café, where we were told even more than during the strictly-led lessons.) How very honoured I felt when once, after a class, he dispassionately told me: “You will be contacted by the Prague Philharmonia, you will do a concert for children.” I think that was when I was in my third year of the program.
Jiří did not even hesitate to discuss with us some of his artistic and human dilemmas. At one of the seminars, he asked our opinion of what is of greater significance when evaluating an orchestra player: a stable and consistently high, though not quite venerable, creative standard, or talent, owing to which a solo performed by such a musician turns into an overwhelming, unforgettable experience? Who is more dispensable for the ensemble? Such questions may seem to be simple, yet the answer is tricky indeed. Impressive, and heart-warming too was (and is) to see how sheer bliss would wash over Jiří with some repertoire pieces, while others (including the most celebrated ones) left him utterly cold. Moreover, Jiří is a master of the apposite, laconic comment, whereas he, I think, really dislikes long speeches. “Well, it must be performed now and then,” that is his style of expressing that which goes against his grain. The classes with him were also lessons in emphatic diplomacy.
The mentioned trips abroad were for us, who had not previously had the opportunity to travel beyond the borders of our country, akin to being thrown in the deep end. Although it was probably more the case that we processed the experience within than manifested it without, it is always an amazing, positive shock for a young person venture beyond the known (including the language!). Jiří’s support of our activities with student ensembles was relentless. In my case, this concerned the Young Brno Symphony Orchestra (whose artistic director, Tomáš Krejčí, was also once a student of Jiří’s) and later on primarily with the Prague Student Orchestra (led by Prof. Mirko Škampa). And Jiří was there in the auditorium when we played at an international festival of young orchestras at the Konzerthaus in Berlin. For me personally, though, all that culminated in Jiří’s vehement nod, when I boldly presented my wish to graduate with Josef Suk’s gigantic Asrael. I would like to imagine how I would have responded if I had been in his position, whether I would have provided as great a support to a student as he did. Not even with a wink of the eye did he indicate that the task may prove to be a tough nut to crack for a 23-year-old greenhorn. In many respects, the spring of 2004 played a decisive role in my life. I experienced certain squalls of a personal nature, great waves of a revived need for spirituality, and I peeped, perhaps for the very first time, into the true depths of the beauty of music. And, of course, I whipped up my ambitions to the utmost level. I probably finally felt that which is appropriate when graduating from an academy of arts. At that juncture, the person’s entire future is at stake.
Amidst all this, Jiří was always indispensable to all of us – in the most subtle way possible. We would never hear him saying something like: “This is the way I do it, so you will do it that way too”, or: “This is the right, the only possible, way”. He repeatedly stressed that we should be able to reason according to the principle “I must know why I feel it this way”. Not to copy anything, ever. We received – particularly as regards the initial formation of the conducting gesture – plenty of instructional help. (Hence, the relatively clearly discernible “Jiří School”.) Yet no smoothing of the path. I could say that Jiří navigated us on our journey and occasionally helped us by giving invaluable advice in the sometimes difficult identification of obstacles and their overcoming. He was our attendant and guide, but he taught us the most by himself setting an example.
Following the graduation, we remained in scholastic contact for another year, when I had begun studying for a doctorate. Even though – viewed retrospectively – I did not progress too much in this matter, thanks to Jiří I managed to gain experience abroad, this time on my own. During my postgraduate studies at the Universität der Künste in Berlin, I realised what a fabulous training we had received back at home in Prague. And I am not sure whether such a favourable constellation will ever appear again. But I would also like to say how quickly Jiří came to understand that I would hardly become a sedentary musicologist, and how he never rigidly forced me to take on purely musicological assignments, for which I am really grateful now.
Finally, a very strange phase emerged: overnight, a student turned into a chief conductor. The change really was this abrupt: at the tender age of 24, I assumed the post of artistic director of the Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic Orchestra in Zlín. There is no doubt that I will always recall this tenure as one of the most wonderful in my life. This is not the right occasion to describe it in detail, as my text would suffer in both quantity and stylistic terms (that is: simply dissolve into emotion), but I would like to highlight that this time made an impact on my relationship with Jiří Bělohlávek. When (with a heavy and light heart alike) I interrupted my studies at the Academy of Performing Arts, and subsequently terminated them for good, I felt greatly honoured when, as a colleague, I could address Jiří by his first name, which I continued to use in our ensuing, ample correspondence. And it was by means of this continuous written contact, emails pertaining to every topic under the sun, that we established and developed our close friendship, confirmed at our frequently planned, though seldom materialised, encounters, either purely personal or utterly professional – after all, the two facets simply had to blend together. I particularly recall our critical-musical sessions with the amazing Ivan Moravec, who, I dare guess, had played in the life of the young Jiří Bělohlávek a role similarly essential to that which Jiří had played in mine… In my emails, I always gushed forth my impressions from my conducting work, which just a few months previously I had so longed for and done my best to launch, while Jiří repeated wisely measured recognition of my efforts, ceaselessly encouraging the best that one can squeeze out (even though it sometimes resulted in a lower degree of diligence, and even an easing up). With a certain chill, I now perceive how wisely Jiří was also able to back down from some questions when necessary, bearing in mind that by presenting this or that specific opinion he would inadvertently be depriving my life of the gradual attainment of true independence. I remember how he remained relatively aloof in many respects of my personal decision-making, one such example pertaining to the Prague Philharmonia.
Today, I feel great delight in seeing him putting across – in an earnest and, so typical of him, modest way – one of his major wishes: helping the Czech Philharmonic to become a top-notch orchestra. When it comes to his attendance to any institution that has entrusted him with conducting, he has always shown a venerable traditionalism. His successful leadership of the Prague Symphony Orchestra, the Prague Philharmonia, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, as well as his second tenure with the Czech Philharmonic stand testament to this. Another trait he has displayed has been a high-principled stance at moments when the negotiations about his contract were conducted in a manner different to that agreed or in a way that threatened artistic integrity. Being firm in his approach and his open-minded consistency are definitely qualities that truly impress me. In addition to his joie de vivre, sense of (laconic) humour, human reliability and diligence, I personally treasure yet another two beautiful features: his gentle, inwardly lived passion, and his love of nature. If I happen to pause in astonishment and intoxication at the sheer beauty of a healthy tree or a flower in bloom, if I take immense pleasure in strolling through a forest or an open landscape, I am enjoying the gifts for which, in my otherwise quite determined musical (and other) life, a personal compartment has been opened by none other than Jiří Bělohlávek.
Glyndebourne, 23 May 2016
Translated by Hilda Hearne, English language editor: Justin Krawitz