From Smetana to Zappa: an interview with the director of the Prague Spring international music festival, Roman Belor.


Hello and welcome to another edition of Encore, our monthly programme devoted to classical music. Now, it's not by chance that I started the programme with an extract of the Czech Philharmonic performing Smetana's My Country - one of the potent symbols of the Czech national revival in the 19th century. My Country is traditionally played at the opening concert of the Prague Spring international music festival, which begins on Monday and continues over the next three weeks. 2003 is the festival's fifty-eighth year, and over the decades the festival has acquired a reputation as a major event on the international music calendar, at the same time enjoying the affection of concert goers for its informal atmosphere. And if you assume that the festival is a conservative, traditional and solemn event, this year you'll certainly be in for some surprises. To talk about that and more I'm joined now by the man who has been directing the Prague Spring for the last two years, Roman Belor.

Roman BelorRoman Belor Welcome to the studio.


Now, the Prague Spring always starts with My Country. It's probably the most patriotic piece of Czech music there is. This year it's being conducted by Christian Arming, who is an Austrian. There's a bit of irony in that, isn't there?

"I think that during the last decades we came to the decision to share this living national monument with other countries. We are trying to persuade the world to accept it as a piece of world music and not as a symbol of a national movement, and to incorporate it in the world repertoire. To do this, we have to invite foreign orchestras and foreign conductors."

The festival has been around 58 years. There is always a danger of stagnation. I know that you've been very keen to bring the festival to life and to make it appeal to broader audiences, but at the same time not to bring it down-market. How have you been doing that?

"Speaking about the history I would say that there were two waves of conservatism in the history of the festival. This was the early fifties and the seventies, which was closely connected with the political development of this country at that time. Nevertheless, by lucky circumstances the festival was never manipulated by the regime, as other cultural activities, especially literature, was extremely manipulated. Musical life succeeded to escape from that. Of course, after 1989 we are faced with new challenges and we are trying to stress that the festival is really free and open-minded, and this is one of our ambitions to open the gates, to open the doors to the different directions."

And one of the biggest surprises this year might be "Rock at the Prague Spring", that's a homage to Frank Zappa. How did that come about?

"The reason is that an important part of rock and jazz music and non-classical music has become classical, and we feel that Zappa himself and other musicians have become symbols of a certain generation of the underground movement, of new horizons. And we feel that the Prague Spring festival has to reflect all these things and all these inspirations. And it doesn't manipulate its nucleus, that will always be classical music."

So what is that particular concert going to be - the homage to Frank Zappa?

"This concert will be performed by the famous Czech new-wave rock music band "Prazsky vyber" - or "Prague Selection" - with Michal Kocab and Michal Pavlicek, and these two people were a symbol of rock music in the early 80s. They will play together with the contemporary music ensemble, Agon, and this combination might be quite interesting."

So it will be a meeting of rock and classical music.


And there's also going to be jazz, isn't there? I noticed that the jazz guitarist Rudolf Dasek is going to be playing.

"Yes, and this is another tribute to another personality, because Mr Dasek will be 70 this year and he was also an important symbol of jazz music during the last decades. Some of his LPs recorded with Stivin, the famous flute and saxophone player, have become living legends, so Rudolf Dasek deserves to be at the Prague Spring festival."

There's a great tradition of experimental music here in the Czech Republic. I've noticed that you've also got a whole evening devoted to the highly experimental composer Alois Haba. That includes a special instrument, doesn't it? Part of the concert is going to be played on a quarter-tone piano. What actually is a quarter-tone piano?

"The quarter-tone piano was designed by Haba, to make his idea of divided tones alive, and this is in principle a double piano - two pianos one above the other - tuned in a difference of a quarter-tone and this is always the chance for one generation to see it and hear it, because this piano is in a museum of Czech music and it should be played. It's quite a complicated process to take it from the museum, to repair it and tune it and we are obliged to give to this generation the chance to hear the quarter-tone music."

We've been talking up to now about some of the more unusual things coming up in the festival this year, but you've also got some stars and some classics coming to the Prague Spring festival this year, haven't you?

"This year, as always, we are inviting important foreign orchestras. We are pleased to have the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for two concerts, conducted by its music director Michael Tilson Thomas. We are having at the festival the Tonhalle Zurich with David Zinman - they are also playing two concerts - and the third important international orchestra is the Orchestre National de France."

And, as a last-minute surprise for the concert-going public, you've also got the British conducter, Sir John Eliot Gardiner. That was really solving a crisis, wasn't it?

"It's a funny story, because Vladimir Ashkenazy, who is now finishing his period as the music director of the Czech Philharmonic, was forced by circumstances to cancel his concert with the Czech Philharmonic, but two years ago we had a successful concert of Sir John Eliot Gardiner with the Czech Philharmonic at the Prague Spring festival, and maybe because of that he succeeded to be free for this concert and he replaced Vladimir Ashkenazy, which is strange because he is maybe a more successful conductor than Vladimir Ashkenazy."

And you've also got some very young musicians performing this year. Just looking at the list, there's the young pianist Jitka Cechova, or Yundi Li from China, who's only 22 - he's a pianist - there's the 23-year-old violinist Hilary Hahn. Is that deliberate, encouraging these maybe not quite so well known, very young musicians?

"I would say that one of our intentions is to create space for young artists and the examples you have mentioned are not the only ones. We have not to forget that the Prague Spring festival's integral part is an international music competition and we have to give the chance to the young generation to become known on international stages. But at the same time we are not forgetting important artists who are a bit older."

And finally, what are you most looking forward to at this year's Prague Spring?

"I think that the emphasis on piano as a phenomenon of classical music as a theme of the festival."

Roman Belor, thank you very much for joining us in the studio.

"It was a great pleasure. Thank you very much."