Thursday, May 12, 2011:The Knight-Conductor

Libor Pešek in the guest conductor spot (undated photo)

Libor Pešek is a well-known Czech conductor and a man with a good sense of humor. The ability to not take yourself too seriously must be an asset for anyone who starts out as a jazz trombonist and ends up conducting major world symphonies.

And then is made an honorary knight of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth, to boot.

As Mr Pešek has done.

He followed the typical course for Czech musicians, studying with well-known Czech conductors Karel Ančerl, Václav Neumann, and Václav Smetáček at the Prague Academy and later conducting major Czech and other orchestras. But his first jobs were as a répétiteur (the guy who coaches singers and reads scores for opera productions) at the Pilsen Opera and the National Theatre, Prague.

Along the way towards the international reputation, he has learned some interesting things, shared in informal Q-and-A format with members of a Prague-Aachen (Germany) sister cities club recently.

He explains that you can’t underestimate the role of the concert audience. “The public can feel the ‘vibration’ and they help create a third of the atmosphere,” he says.

Sir Libor Pešek

Looking back, he says he realized that at one point he had been an arrogant, demanding conductor, until “I understood that all these musicians were artists, with their own problems. You have to become a psychologist who can make fun of yourself,” he says, to really make the chemistry of the orchestra ‘work.’

And Mr Pešek was able to create more than just a surface cooperation with international orchestras. As chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic from 1987-1997 he introduced Czech composer Josef Suk to the wider world. “The Liverpool orchestra picked up the feeling like Suk was theirs,” he notes.

In return, the English orchestra was the first non-Czech orchestra invited to open the Prague Spring Music Festival, in 1993. The performance of the orchestra’s opening harps in Má Vlast is another of his career highlights he shares with the gray-haired club members, fans who may have been in the audience that memorable night nearly 20 years ago.

Another best is the moment he received an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth. “I had stage fright,” he laughs. “No, I was really excited,” he amends his answer. Some time after receiving the honor, he again saw the Queen, backstage at a performance of the Liverpool Philharmonic.

“She didn’t remember me,” he says. The audience chuckles.

And adds, “But I remembered her.” The audience roars. — oo

– Mary Matz

Photo Credits: Historical photo: FOK brochure, Prague Symphony Orchestra, 1934-1994; portrait photo: Mary Matz

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