Jakub Hrůša: How to Listen to Classical Music

Jakub Hrůša forgives listeners who go to concerts to relax, but says they may be missing out on  something.

Jakub Hrůša forgives listeners who go to concerts to relax, but says they may be missing out on something.

Confused about classical music? Or maybe ‘apprehensive’ is a better word? Chief conductor Jakub Hrůša explains what to listen for in classical music, in this heart-to-heart interview with Opus Osm.

We’re sitting in front of Jakub Hrůša’s massive desk in a sunny, spacious office at the headquarters of the PKF – Prague Philharmonia in the center of Prague. Chief conductor and music director Hrůša, an energetic, vibrant 30-something, sits comfortably behind this desk. Behind him part of the wall is lined with some of the many books he loves. But he doesn’t look like a CEO or a glowering musician fit to be cast as a plaster bust on someone’s piano.

He looks like a young guy you’d like to get to know, to have a chat with. So he begins a conversation about his life’s work, and how an audience can start to understand it.

Jakub Hrůša

Jakub Hrůša

“All art-making is basically giving shape to things,” he says simply. “Otherwise, music is just a cluster of undistinguished sounds which have no sense.

“So if I make an interview with you and never lower my voice, in two minutes you would be tired and confused and you would never find meaning in what I have to say.

“However, if I choose what’s important, and really stress it –” he suddenly strikes the desk with his open palm – “maybe with a gesture like I did just now, in the end these important moments stay in your mind. What happened in time suddenly has shape.”

Imagine him speaking in an unknown foreign language, he suggests. We can’t speak about explicit content, but “you can have a wonderful experience by listening to sounds which you don’t understand language-wise. We can still understand moods, characters, emotions, and structure. It’s something similar [with music].”

Music has the special ability to address and reveal meaning to “even inexperienced listeners,” he adds, “even if music is understood more in a feeling sense. … What they choose to listen to – whether it’s the harmony, or the sound quality, or the sound, the instruments, or the shapes of the melody, that all is relevant.”

Slipping Out of Language’s Message

audience PKF Rudolfinum

There are many reasons to go to a concert, and many ways to listen to the music.

On the other hand, Mr Hrůša warns, “What is not meaningful is to play the piece in a way which cannot capture the attention of the audience, and the audience slips out of what the message is too much. What is not meaningful,” he repeats, “is for the audience to stop listening and to think of ‘what my husband told me last night.’ Ideally, you have to capture the audience attention to the extent that the people never stop listening.”

What also is not meaningful is if the audience goes there to relax, the conductor says. “A lot of people go to concerts with the intention to relax. So as someone said, it’s ‘listening to music without music’ – you have the music only as the background. –That’s quite offending, isn’t it?” pointedly asks this chief conductor who has given his life to music, and the past 12 years to the PKF.

A Little Knowledge Can’t Hurt

The young conductor – currently in his final season with the PKF – admits that “People have the right to listen in any way they want, even if they come for a nap, as long as they don’t disturb others. (Continued on next page)

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