Thursday, April 14, 2011: The Builder

A 1942 poster announcing a concert conducted by Václav Smetáček. These two pieces have often been played during times of Czech national emergency.

These days, orchestra conductors often receive top billing as much as the ‘stars.’ But with a few exceptions, once a conductor retires or dies, most of them are forgotten by the general public.

Václav Smetáček is still respected by musicians who remember his conducting. But perhaps his greatest achievement which history will remember him for was his building — building the Prague Symphony Orchestra (FOK) from its early days as a small group performing on the radio, to a fully credentialed symphony respected both here and abroad. Today his orchestra is a keystone of Prague culture.

First the Oboe, then the Baton

Smetáček started out as a generalist. He was a versatile musician who studied music composition, oboe, and conducting at the Prague Conservatory, and more theoretical pursuits such as philosophy, music theory, and aesthetics at the Philosophy Faculty at Charles University.

He began his musical career as an oboe player in the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Simultaneously, he played in The Prague Woodwind Quintet, which he founded along with other musicians.

Then he left the Czech Philharmonic in 1933, and supported himself by working in the music and phonographic departments of Czech Radio.

It was at Czech Radio that Smetáček crossed paths with the newly founded FOK orchestra, and Smetáček soon started leading some of FOK’s live radio concerts as a guest conductor. At that point he began to narrow his focus, and conducting ranked first in his life.

Through his involvement first as a contributor, and then as FOK-founder Rudolf Pekárek’s chief collaborator, Smetáček dedicated considerable energy to reinventing the FOK radio and film ensemble. Pekárek had concentrated on presenting light classics and popular music; Smetáček began to reformulate the group as a concert orchestra.

From the Studio to the Hall

Announcement of the newly-formed FOK's second public concert, May 6, 1936

FOK’s first public concert took place under his baton at Mánes exhibition hall on March 25th, 1936, and featured Czech modern classical music. More concerts followed; and a regular season program was launched when Smetáček moved the orchestra from the radio studio into the concert hall.

In 1942, Smetáček permanently replaced Pekárek as FOK’s chief conductor. He went on to lead the orchestra for the next three decades (1942-1972). During the war, the activities of the orchestra were diminished, however, and at one point the musicians were forced to work at a factory in Kbely.

But in 1945, after the end of the war, the ensemble started anew. Smetáček hired new players and brought the number of musicians up to 50. He also reset the orchestra’s artistic direction and reshaped its musical interpretation.

Under Smetáček’s direction, FOK’s repertoire included not only classics of Czech classical composition, but modern Czech classical composers as well as 20th century composers such as Stravinsky and Mahler. He also staged serious vocal-symphonic works such as Mozart’s Requiem and Dvořák’s Mass.

Back to the Oboe

In the post-war years Smetáček started teaching oboe at the Prague Conservatory and later took over classes at the Academy of Performing Arts where he conducted the Academy Orchestra as well.

Conductor Smetáček and the Prague Symphony Orchestra (FOK)

One of his students was Sir Libor Pešek, who later became one of those celebrated conductors, leading the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in Britain (1987-1997). Mr Pešek recalls Professor Smetáček: “I could almost say I was an auto-dictat –I don’t think we saw Mr Smetáček more than three times in a year. I think he understood that I was very young and stupid; I fought him, but we later became friends. Mainly, though, you learned from him — you learned from him when you were taking his exams.”

As a guest conductor Smetáček performed all over the world and won the unique honor of being the first Czech conductor to perform in La Scala in Italy. His whole life was dedicated to music and promoting Czech music was a priority for him. However, he was never too busy to occasionally accompany his sons on oboe in their band Traditional Jazz Studio.

Although he left the position of chief conductor in 1972, he continued to appear with FOK as a guest almost until his death at 80. Smetáček conducted his last symphonic concert at the age of 79.    oo

– Zuzana Sklenková

Photo Credits: Poster and program, brochure of the Prague Symphony Orchestra, 1934-1994; Smetáček conducting, FOK website

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