Bands, on the Run

From Auschwitz to Australia, Rudolf Pekárek never let history stop the music

By Zuzana Sklenková

Rudolf Pekárek 'at his desk' in an undated photo

The Prague Symphony Orchestra, or FOK (for “Film, Opera, Koncert”), started off as the idea of just one man, Rudolf Pekárek (1900-1974). He was not only a music organizer and oboe player, but also a conductor.

Although he was the founder of one of the foremost classical music ensembles in Prague, his name is not listed in encyclopedias nor engraved on plaques.

But even the little that can be found about this father figure of FOK shows a life far from the ordinary.

Nothing is known about Pekárek’s life before the founding of FOK. The first mention of Rudolf Pekárek is from October 1934, when he called together unemployed musicians for a meeting in a Vinohrady restaurant. He wanted to start a new orchestra.

But the economic crisis was hitting musical life very hard. Concert attendance was decreasing rapidly. Some newly-founded orchestras had already disbanded. Starting a new orchestra must have seemed a very bold move.

Yet from the beginning, Pekárek had a clear vision for the new group. He pictured an orchestra that could sustain itself by recording music for the newer media such as film. Only later would it embark on the classical concert stage.

Especially thanks to Pekárek’s business skills and negotiations, the commercial concept took off. FOK, as Pekárek called the ensemble, soon earned its first merits by performing live on the Czech radio station Radiožurnál, negotiating for work with the Czech Film Union, and by making records.

Pekárek and the FOK (Prague Symphony Orchestra), 1934

Jack of All Trades
At the start, Pekárek was irreplaceable. He was both the Orchestra’s chief conductor and program director, and in modern business terms also its executive officer, dealing with business and legal matters and pursuing an entrepreneurial vision. All in all, he performed jobs of several people today.

Like many good entrepreneurs, at the beginning Pekárek financed the venture himself (though he later made sure that the ensemble received subsidies from the Ministry of Education).

Musically, as the FOK’s chief conductor, he directed rather lighter classical music and popular music that was demanded especially on the radio. In fact, the group was often introduced as “Pekárek’s Salon Orchestra”.

It must be said that he didn’t dwell on his post as a conductor and didn’t hesitate to hand over the baton to his younger colleagues, in particular to Václav Smetáček, who would go on to promote more demanding classical music and later re-invent FOK as a classical music ensemble.

On the Run
Pekárek’s personal life, however, had a less smooth trajectory.

After the outbreak of World War II, in October 1941 he was arrested due to his Jewish origin and later deported to Auschwitz, the concentration camp in Poland. Fortunately, he was transferred from the death camp to work in coal mines in Silesia, and thus avoided a certain end.

Little is known about Pekárek's early life

In September 1944 he risked everything and, during a night shift, escaped from the coal mine with two Russians and a Frenchman. They headed towards the Russian lines, hoping to join the Russian forces. Pekárek later recalled the escape: “We travelled at night and hid by day while the whole Eastern front cracked and roared at us as the German savagely fought fierce counter-actions against Russians.”

Later the escapees were picked up by a Russian patrol and Pekárek joined the Czechoslovak Army Corps, formed during the war from Czechoslovak soldiers and expatriates on the Eastern front.

In the Army Arts Ensemble (later known as Armádní Umělecký soubor Víta Nejedlého) he started directing music again after the first conductor, Vít Nejedlý, died. The musicians did manual work, and then performed at concerts to instill morale in the fighting troops, and at funerals.

After the end of the war Pekárek returned to Prague and to his work in FOK, serving as its administrative director and second conductor. His life changed radically again after the communist takeover in 1948.

Unwilling to accept the new regime, he chose to leave Czechoslovakia and emigrated to Australia with his wife Tereza. “The land down under” wasn’t a random choice; his brother had settled in Australia previously.

Again unwilling to interrupt his musical career, Pekárek continued conducting, though this time strictly classical music.

First he led the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in Perth and then accepted the job of chief conductor for the newly founded Queensland Symphony Orchestra in Brisbane, becoming its longest serving conductor (1954-1967).

At the Queensland Conservatorium of Griffith University a prize was established in Pekárek’s honor for the best oboe player, an instrument he played himself. The competition is still held annually and is sponsored by Pekárek’s estate.

Though Pekárek spent more than a quarter of a century away from Czechoslovakia, he kept ties with his homeland through friendship with FOK’s friends and the Czech music he always promoted as a conductor — sometimes to the annoyance of Australian critics who complained about too much Dvořák in one season.

Pekárek visited Czechoslovakia once more, in 1972 before his death in Brisbane in 1974, and was able once again to re-unite with FOK — a major ensemble of international renown. oo

Photo Credits: Pekárek at his desk, Sydney Jewish Museum, donated by Eva Klug. All others, FOK Archive.

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