Monday, May 9, 2011: Rehearsing the Dream

Conductor Jiří Bělohlavek confers during a break in Prague Spring rehearsals

Picture this: You’re 18 years old and into music. And on Thursday you’re in an orchestra that’s going to play one of the most iconic — and demanding — pieces in your entire country’s repertoire of music.

Under the baton of an internationally-known conductor. In your country’s most famous music festival.

And the performance is going to be broadcast live on television.

Sounds like one of those I-forgot-my-pants dreams, doesn’t it?

But it’s really going to happen Thursday at 8 pm when the Prague Conservatory Symphony Orchestra — the first student orchestra in history — will open the 66th Prague Spring International Music Festival at Smetana Hall in Prague’s Municipal House.

And of course, as has been the tradition every one of those previous 65 times, the festival opens with Smetana’s work best known around the world, My Homeland (Má Vlast).

Suspicion — Suspense — Surprise

“Many of my colleagues, including some professors here at the Conservatory, were skeptical about our orchestra performing Má Vlast,” admits Prague Conservatory deputy director Aleš Kaňka, speaking to Opus Osm. But about this dream-come-true opportunity, he says, “In [recent] rehearsals, it was absolutely beautiful — they played like I’ve never heard them before,” he marvels.

'Not buh-buh-buh, but tak-tak-tak,' the conductor sings, to explain the precise sound he wants from the young orchestra

The performance’s conductor, Jiří Bělohlavek, concurs. “Even though the project might have raised suspicion at the beginning because of the performers’ age, it’s in very good shape,” he told media at a press conference Friday. “Má Vlast is very demanding. Even a professional has a lot to absorb and a lot of work to play it,” he later tells Opus Osm.

Mr Kaňka compares playing the piece comprising six tone poems to an Olympic event, noting that even professional musicians must take a day off between rehearsals or performances. Otherwise, “It’s like asking a Marathon runner to race every day,” he says.

That’s the main reason Mr Bělohlavek has decided to enlarge the orchestra from the usual 70 to 90 players to about 125 for this performance. “These young players are quite advanced,” he says. “They’ve mastered their instruments but they don’t have a lot of experience playing this piece — actually, none,” he smiles. “So with the larger number they can divide different spots among themselves, giving each other a chance to ‘recover’ and distribute their energy to last for the whole concert.”

Extra Players, Additional Practices

Tomáš Kolář, 25, a graduate of the Prague Conservatory and a student in French horn at Brno’s Janáček Academy of Music, is one of a handful of extra musicians called in to augment the orchestra’s numbers, which also requires extending the stage at Smetana Hall. “I’m only like a substitute, in case someone gets sick,” he says at Friday’s rehearsal.

French horn musicians Lisková (center), Kolář (far right) describe playing the piece for the opening concert

He explains that while the players are “very good at playing their instruments, they’re not as experienced in playing together” in terms of knowing how to watch the conductor’s movements in certain spots. “It’s harder for them to ‘read’ the conductor,” he explains.

Learning to read the coach's signs and play as a team in an all-star music festival

So for extra practice, the entire orchestra and Conductor Bělohlavek spent a week earlier in a kind of musical spring training camp, relocating to the town of Polička for intensive rehearsals.

Another member of the ‘dream team,’ Hana Lisková, 23, is also a Prague Conservatory graduate and currently a student at Berlin’s University of the Arts. “The week at Polička was really good,” she tells Opus Osm. “Every player got a chance to play. Mr Bělohlavek is really, really perfect. In just two or three sentences of his instructions you can see the improvement” in the playing, she says.

She adds, “Playing Má Vlast is a surprise for me. The Prague Spring opening concert is normally played only by a professional orchestra — the music is strange to play, the intonation is strange. But after playing just the first movement, it was like ‘Oh, OK! Ya! This is not as bad as I thought!’ ”

She points out one major advantage the conservatory orchestra claims which all the professionals may be overlooking: “We are young,” she points out. “We can make changes quickly.” — oo

– Mary Matz; Zuzana Sklenková contributed to this article.

Photo Credits: Top, Mary Matz; all others, Miroslav Setnička

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