Listening with Jakub Hrůša
I met Jakub Hrůša on a warm April weekend in Bamberg, Germany. In the fall of 2016, he was named the fifth music director of the Bamberger Symphoniker, an orchestra deeply rooted in the Czech tradition. For this interview, I asked him to select some of his favorite pieces from that tradition, and then discussed the works with him.
VAN: When I asked you to curate this playlist, the only requirement was that it had to be Czech music. Did you apply any other criteria in choosing the pieces?
Jakub Hrůša: I chose pieces that had a significance for me early on in my life. I’m not claiming that the list really reflects who I am. There’s a certain intuition to it.
With every piece of art, but especially a time-based art like music, you can look at the piece, its material and structure, and you can look at its interpretive history and cultural impact. The latter is especially important for “Má vlast.” Could you explain the importance of this piece for Czech cultural history?
The piece is significant for all culturally oriented Czech people, even beyond musical connoisseurs. It became especially important at certain historical moments. In secure times, its meaning seems almost like a burden—but at times when the Czech people feel something politically is really rotten, it becomes a symbol of cultural identity. During the Nazi occupation it was such a symbol of Czech nationality that it was considered unwelcome by the occupiers [and partly banned—Ed.]. There is this beautiful recording, a live performance by Vaclav Talich from 1939 in the national theater, which concludes [with the audience] singing the national anthem without any preparation or stimulus. The same [happened] in 1968 during the Prague Spring, and again in 1989 when it was played in the public squares.
What’s your personal connection to the piece?
My first memories of “Má vlast” were through the media. I either watched it on TV or listened to it on the radio, probably even before elementary school. I remember coming back to the piece at least once a year, because it opens the Prague Spring Festival, which is broadcast on TV and radio. It was the first piece where I actually developed an ability to compare the different interpretations. As a boy, I remember thinking, “that was better because…,” “this was not the same quality as last year,” “this was too slow and the music not energetic enough.”
What were these judgments based on? Instinct, I guess. When I started dreaming about becoming a conductor, that piece was a central point of my dream: I was imagining myself opening the Prague Spring festival with an orchestra. Not because the conductor was important, but the festival was somehow the social event for my surroundings.
That moment came in 2010, when you opened the 65th edition of the festival. Given the piece’s loaded history, have you ever been hesitant to conduct it?
I never hesitated to conduct it. The only hesitation I have nowadays is if someone wants to put the piece into a context which doesn’t feel right. For instance if [the setting] is too ordinary, then I tend to protest, or if it’s connected to something where it doesn’t belong, or if it’s the right moment to play the whole cycle, but the presenter decides to only play some of it because it’s too difficult to sell.
What’s special about the music?
First of all, it works very well as a cycle. That sounds obvious but it isn’t—there are many examples of works which seem to belong together, but they actually don’t hold together. Smetana was a great architect of music. He knew by knowledge, skill and instinct how to build a huge block of music and keep it together. It’s very coherent, thematically and motivically very beautifully intertwined. I also find the harmonic language of the piece rather brave and bold—not in a Wagnerian sense, because it doesn’t experiment so much with tonality, but in the way it juxtaposes very clear major-minor tonalities, which give one comfort and are very German in a way, with a daring chromaticism.
Despite its quality as a cycle, orchestras often only play individual selections from the piece. How does the character change when you do play the whole work?
Nowadays “Moldau, Vltava” is played all the time and has become a bit worn out, but it’s interesting for me, when the whole cycle is played, to give “Moldau” the right position, which is exactly number two, where it should be. We tend to forget how beautifully managed it is. And then there is the fifth movement, “Tábor,” which is usually the least popular among audiences, because it’s the most difficult to figure out. For me it is actually an example in music of the ability of a composer to create a completely unknown form, that doesn’t follow any example. So it’s very revolutionary in a way.
Is there one passage or phrase to which you look forward to every time you conduct it?
I always look forward to the conclusion of the cycle, when the motives of “Vyšehrad” and “Blaník” come together organically and create a monumental climax.
Next up are Dvořák’s “Slavonic Dances.”
This is a good opportunity to remind your readers that the “Slavonic Dances” are arguably—at least if we speak about romantic music or the tradition of music in the 19th century—one of the most difficult scores ever. Dvořák is always difficult: like Mozart, it sounds easy but is difficult to play. It must sound easy going, but it’s actually not always easy to execute. That why it’s somehow traumatizing that the “Slavonic Dances” are not really given the proper care.
When did you first encounter the piece?
I was drawn to it by playing in the student orchestra as a trombonist. Because I wanted to find out what the other ones were like, I listened to a recording and found out that we actually played the easier ones and the others were even more exciting [laughs]. As a boy or adolescent you search for some kind of drive or energetic moment in art. It’s not very typical for someone who is 14 or 15 to be contemplative in music. The phenomenon of the beat, be it jazz or pop music, is something that provokes you in that direction. The “Slavonic Dances” led me personally to discover that this drive is also potent in classical music.
As a child I listened to a radio series about famous composers, and I always liked the one about Dvořák the most: he traveled the world, had success during his lifetime, felt connected with nature and took a very intuitive approach to music. He came across as happy, down-to-earth, and for me this is somehow reflected in his music.
I’m very touched by what you said. I think first, objectively it may be close to the truth; and second, I feel the same way. When you learn about Dvořák as a person, he was actually a bit grumpy. But not like Brahms, for instance. I’m a bit obsessed with comparing those two. They both had long beards and grey suits, were people who very easily made unpleasant comments about things. But deep inside, I guess—I’m not a psychologist, just from what I know—Dvořák was a happy person, and Brahms was not. You can feel it in the music. Both wrote happy music and sad music, but I think Brahms was kind of a sceptic in life, whereas Dvořák was a believer.
Dvořák made a lot of comments about Brahms, whom he admired and adored, but he couldn’t figure out how it was possible that such a person didn’t believe in God. Dvořák was not so much a formal believer, although he was officially Catholic and went to Mass, but he had a certain faith that was closer to pantheism. He was very much driven by nature. He couldn’t believe how someone could be so skeptical. And Brahms on the other hand couldn’t believe how someone could be so natural, not intellectual enough. Yet it didn’t prevent them from liking each other a lot. I had a grandfather who was one of seven children, and he was a very atheistic scientific person; and his younger singer was a living example of Mother Theresa. And they loved each other, they were like two sides of one personality.
Those two topics, faith and family, are a good connection to the next piece, Dvořák’s “Stabat Mater,” which he started working on after the death of his daughter Josefa and completed after his two surviving children died two years later.
For me it’s one of the most amazing examples of what spiritual music can be. It’s very deeply felt; at the same time it has moments of almost smiling streams of hope that show a great courage in life. I wouldn’t say it has optimism—that’s a stupid word—but it has hope. For me it’s an ideal expression of how a Christian religious music could sound. There’s a lot of suffering in it, but it doesn’t wallow in that suffering. Rather it’s implying that it may have some meaning.
What’s your story with the piece?
At some point in my musical development I got drawn to more difficult types of music. “Stabat Mater” was one of the gates into music which is on the surface potentially difficult to digest or boring, because it’s all slow. I think all adolescents have a certain tendency to seek complicated—even a little self-torturing—aspects of art, and for me “Stabat Mater” was a very healthy introduction to those deep and problematic spheres in music.
You chose three Dvořák pieces, the last one is his Symphony No. 8.
That is rather easy to explain, because that’s the piece through which I started thinking about conducting. Basically at some point I thought I should have a look at what the conductor has in front of him and how this amazingly rich symphonic music is codified. So I just went into the public library. More or less by chance I took Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8. I was totally fascinated by it. It was my initiation into really wanting to study conducting and symphonic music.
Do you remember when you first conducted it?
I recorded it with a hired orchestra at the Academy of Performing Arts. I was 17 in my first year, we had applied for the Prague Spring Festival competition. You had to send a video, and I hadn’t ever conducted a professional orchestra before, so the school organized the session for us to send something. And the first time in public, I’m not sure…let’s have a look.
[With a childlike laugh, he goes over to his laptop and types something in.]
I’m really curious myself now.
You keep track of all your performances?
Yes, a few years ago I spent like two weeks putting everything in.
How did you find all your old engagements?
I always write them into the score… So, I’ve done the Symphony No. 8 41 times, the first time was on April 22, 2005, at the National House of Frýdek-Místek.
What’s your favorite recording?
That’s difficult, none pleases me enough [laughs]. Really!
So it’s time to record it yourself?
Yes, we will do it here [with the Bamberger Symphoniker].
There’s one aspect or stereotype about Dvořáks music which I think Brahms started to circulate: while he has lots of musical ideas, they remain fragmentary and not woven into a larger connected structure.
At a certain point, and I think the Symphony No. 8 was actually that point, Dvořák decided that he was finally mature enough to stop worrying about it. It was his nature not to be as intensively and entirely focused on construction and connection. I think he enjoyed life in a more unexpected way. What I at one point didn’t really like about Brahms was that he expected that his point of view of what music should be, would be taken for granted universally. That is something really unpleasant about all such composers.
I think Dvořák was in a way the autodidactic type: he learned how to compose through trial and error, so he composed actually thousands of pages of music until he got to the point of being able to master what he wanted. Brahms said of his Symphony No. 8 that “the essentials are missing.” But what are “the essentials”?
“Taras Bulba” might be the piece I have conducted the most…Yes, here we are, 45 times [laughs]. Janáček has fascinated me since my childhood. I’m from Brno, and Janáček is the hero of music in Brno.
That piece tends to be overshadowed by Janáček’s “Sinfonietta,” which is more widely played and popular. Why did you choose this piece?
I discovered both pieces very early on. As a conductor, however, I always thought “Taras Bulba” was more interesting, you can make more of a statement with it. The “Sinfonietta” is more light-hearted, effective, but you can actually feel that for Janáček it was almost secondary to his operas; while “Taras Bulba” was a huge compositional task for him. He worked on it for three years and really gave it everything he had. It’s also a piece that I have to think about again and again: there are moments in it which, because of certain tempo changes or rhythmical patterns, you just cannot find a solution that makes all the aspects right.
“Taras Bulba” is based on the novel by Nikolai Gogol, which celebrates Great Russia nationalism and is full of violence, anti-Polish sentiment and anti-Semitism. Does this matter for you? Has it become more important with the recent political turmoil?
When I program it I think about it. When I conduct it not as much. I usually come to a point in the rehearsal process when it’s important to narrate the plot to the musicians, especially in cultures where they don’t have experience with it, like Australia, Japan, or the U.S. When we reach the last movement, where I need to describe what the prophecy of “Taras Bulba” is, I always struggle with what to say. Of course I don’t identify myself at all with the prophecy of a glorious future of the Russian nation—not to mention that the hero wasn’t really Russian. It gets really complicated these days with the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. [When the novel was published in 1835, it was criticized by Russian authorities for being “too Ukrainian,” which led Gogol to rewrite it and increase the Russian nationalist themes—Ed.]
It’s a tricky point, on the one hand these pieces work even if you know nothing about the plot. It’s our task to find the fine line between not bothering anyone with the garbage of nationalism, but also not stealing the power from [the work]. If every single program we do is supposed to be completely meaningful and justifiable, then I’m in trouble, because I don’t know why to program “Taras Bulba” in today’s world.
Have you conducted this piece in Poland?
No, that’s a good question. But I conducted it in Russia, and I was disappointed that the people couldn’t find a way in. I thought it would be an original way to stimulate their musicianship. It went very well, but I had a bit of a feeling which is typical for huge countries: that I was trying to convince them that something which they feel is slightly inferior should be considered important.
Do you still have this feeling, that there’s a disrespect or ignorance towards Czech music?
In a subtle way, especially when you put an unknown piece on a program, which I find incredible beautiful and important, and it’s not in the canon. But on the other hand, it always wins [people over].
Would you agree that there’s been a Janáček renaissance in recent years?
Much more so abroad than in our country. Janáček is one of those artists who reminds you of aspects of life of which you don’t want to be reminded.
Suk’s “Asrael Symphony” also seems to have become an icon of Czech culture…
Yes, although it’s too complicated to become really popular. It’s considered important, but it’s not popular.
How did you come across it?
I went to a lot of subscription concerts in Brno as a teenager. This is really what I find beautiful about the subscription concerts concept, even now: much more than selling particular programs through hundreds of marketing tools, it’s a way to encounter something unexpected. It was a Friday evening, I was tired from the week. I didn’t particularly enjoy the first half of the concert, the Janáček Theater is very dry, with bad acoustics, and you can’t see properly. Even the conductor didn’t bring any hope that the program would be fantastic.
Then came Suks “Asrael Symphony,” and I was like, 60 minutes! But I’m a disciplined person by nature, so I stayed. And then it starts [he goes to the piano and plays the first pitch] with just this one note. I love pieces that start like that. Suddenly a landscape opened up to an extent I had never experienced. I wasn’t able to step out of the piece at all. And on top of it, the transformation at the end, from sorrow to open heaven—I was literally in tears.
The next day I got a recording, and I was disappointed; it wasn’t the same as live, so I put it aside. But it stayed with me.
When did you come back to it?
As I studied conducting the experience repeated and at some point I felt so close to the piece that I suggested it for my graduation concert. I learned it by heart, the orchestra was convinced by what I did, by chance an agent came—my whole career started with that piece. I’m going to open next season here with it. There’s a little renaissance of Suk going on right now, Kirill Petrenko is also a lover of his music. He’s somehow the Czech Mahler.
You are president of the International Martinů Circle, so putting him on the list was a must.
Yes, although I now confess that for a long time I couldn’t figure out why Martinů is considered important. He wrote a lot of occasional pieces, concertos, chamber music, there’s certain lightness and lack of ambition to really get to you, which for a young person is lacking the power of art. I have to confess, I had the same thing as teenager with Mozart for instance, or Haydn. It was probably my inclination to seek complexity. I couldn’t appreciate the simplicity enough.
Martinů is also in a way quite simple. But the Symphony No. 6 got me somehow. It was the first piece I conducted at the Prague Spring Festival Competition. I like its fantasy, the way it steps into a sonic world.
I’ve never heard of Miloslav Kabeláč, the next composer.
Let me put it like this: if we assume that it is possible to be a symphonist in the 20th century—it’s a problematic term, people like Pierre Boulez would have said that the classical symphony doesn’t make sense anymore—but if you think that it is possible, there’s a certain output. Kabeláč came after Martinů and is the next most important symphonist. In his music, the symphony developed without interruption, close to maybe Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and also in an experimental way, with proportional notation, unusual percussion instruments, unexpected combinations of structure and colors. Kabeláč would have become part of that stream of Western music if he hadn’t lived in a country oppressed by Communist ideals of social realism. His pieces were played abroad, and he couldn’t go.
“Mystery of Time” is one of his earlier pieces, but it’s an amazing piece of architecture of music: this cosmological idea of getting what time is through music, through tones, is actually very potent. Even if you know nothing about it, it succeeds.
You do a lot of Czech music because you obviously love it. But as a young conductor, were you ever afraid of being typecast as the Czech conductor who only does Czech music, or have you managed to avoid that stigma?
It’s difficult. I was never afraid or scared, because I’m proud of Czech music. So I can imagine theoretically only doing Czech music my whole life. There’s such richness, you can go deeper and deeper without getting bored of it.
But I was concerned about it and I consciously made a choice not to let it happen. As I developed the danger decreased, because I became known for other things than Czech music, but the tendency somehow still exists. If I do a debut somewhere I don’t think it’s a bad thing to present myself through Czech music. But it’s usually the case that when I come for the second time the program gets richer. If you look at my schedule, there are a lot of Czech pieces, but it’s still a minority. And if I’m seen as someone that is doing a lot for Czech music, that’s absolutely fine. ¶