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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The man who is changing the sound of the BBC

By Norman Lebrecht / July 5, 2006

One Sunday last month, members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra came beaming out of the Maida Vale studios after recording Brahms’ Fourth Symphony for future broadcast. No prizes for spotting the anomalies. Anyone who has watched BBC musicians play out a long, hot summer of Proms does not expect much of a smile at a Sunday callout, and anyone involved in the musical scene knows that the BBC is the last orchestra in London you would ever book to play Brahms.

The BBC has always defended its role in the concert marketplace by arguing that its orchestras exist to play the music that independent bands don’t touch – the academic scratchings of provincial conservatory teachers, for instance, that give the Proms each year their inimitable air of worthiness. No-one makes a better fist of abstruse scores than the BBC players, but put them in front of a romantic summit and they fall back in disarray.

So it was a sign of changing times when the BBC announced Jiri Belohlavek last year as chief conductor of its flagship ensemble, times of music downloads, media convergence and multi-skilling. Broadcast orchestras are breaking out of stereotype, as the BBC Philharmonic demonstrated from Manchester with its million-download Beethoven cycle. The whispering Czech was hired for London to raise standards and restore self-belief. Playing Brahms instead of Boulez was a good tactical warm-up. ‘They love it,’ chuckles Belohlavek, post-session. ‘They are hungry for this music.’

Just turned 60 and undemonstrative to a fault, he has worked with the orchestra for a decade and saw it turn restive under Leonard Slatkin, a populist American whose exuberant minimalisms and Last Night speeches left players feeling uninspired. Several old-timers have recently retired and Belohlavek faces his first Proms season in the thick of auditions to fill the gaps, the most crucial of which is for a concertmaster who will reshape the string sound. Among high-fliers trying out for the vacant front seat at the conductor’s left hand are Daniel Rowland, once of the Allegri String Quartet, and Clio Gould, leader of the RPO. Watch that space on Proms nights.

Lacking Valery Gergiev’s combustibility and Simon Rattle’s flamboyant mop of hair, Belohlavek goes about his work without ostentation, appearing shy in the limelight and almost embarrassed by ovations. Internationally acclaimed – his lustrous 2003 Tristan at Glyndebourne still resonates – his fastidiousness ensures that he will never be famous. He speaks a halting, precise English in a boxy Czech accent, strictly to the technical point, wasting no words. ‘They asked me here,’ he says, ‘to establish flexibility and speed, and improve the quality of phrasing, to refine the orchestra.’

Few maestros are better at refinery. Belohlavek has the ears of a nighthawk and the patience to repeat a musical phrase until it becomes, in his word, ‘fluid’. He has another, scarcer quality - the air of a superior type of surgeon who has only to enter a ward for the patients to feel better. You will hear that, too, in the BBC sound this summer.

When I first met Jiri Belohlavek, he was chief of the Czech Philharmonic, elected by the players under Communism and confirmed with an increased majority after Vaclav Havel’s Velvet Revolution. He was one of the shining lights of those heady days, a harbinger of cultural progress who led by moral example.

Then, like so many others, he was brought down by greed and corruption, the irresistible temptations of freedom. A German conductor turned up at the Czech Phil in 1992 with false promises of a lucrative record deal. Belohlavek was booted out.

He founded a rival orchestra of younger players, the Prague Philharmonia, and drew a bigger audience and better playing. But the shock of betrayal by musicians who had been lifelong friends was as bitter as the torments of Communism that had reduced his father, a respected judge, to a lowly niche as legal advisor to a water-bottling plant.

Belohlavek avoids speaking of these traumas, preferring to reflect on his happy early years as junior conductor at the Czech Phil. The chief was Vaclav Neumann - ‘not the most precise interpreter,’ he recalls, but a party veteran who knew how to work the system and protected his musicians ‘with great elegance’ from the punishments that followed the 1968 Soviet invasion.

On tour in Japan, he relates, Neumann was brought the news that Leonid Brezhnev had died. Apparatchiks demanded that tribute be paid. Neumann called a rehearsal. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he began. ‘Let us all stand in memory of Leonid Brezhnev, hero of the working class, President of the Soviet Union. We pay homage to all that this great man did for Czech music.’ After a second or two, Neumann added: ‘you may sit down now – he didn’t do much for Czech music.’

These Schweik-like survival techniques are cherished by Belohlavek. They are the strengths that enabled him to overcome adversity and find hermetic self-immersion in technical perfection. Beyond his studio he feels powerless to halt cultural degradation. ‘Music education has disappeared from the primary school in the Czech Republic,’ he rages. ‘If they had intended to make the people stupid, they couldn’t do it better.

‘I talked to Mr Havel many times. We were weeping one to the other. He said: each of us can only do what is possible. I am too small an authority for this.’

Belohlavek limits his repertoire to the great masters; the only moderns he conducts are young Czechs. At the BBC his focus will be on Bruckner, Mahler - one big work a year – and Dvorak, starting with the low-numbered symphonies, of which he has just recorded the fifth. ‘There is so much Dvorak that we don’t know,’ he sighs. ‘I am trying like a lion to bring these pieces to the public.’

His particular favourite is Bohuslav Martinu, the Moravian melodist whose works he propagates incessantly. ‘One reviewer has already warned that I cannot do Martinu without limit,’ he laughs, ‘but we’ll see.’ He finds wry parallels at the BBC to the overblown bureaucracies of Communist state culture but he is a past master at dealing with policy directives.

The principle on which he will not compromise is quality, and he finds that sadly lacking in London. The London Philharmonic once booked him to conduct Mahler’s Fifth on a single three-hour rehearsal. ‘I got two sessions and general rehearsal in the end,’ he reports. ‘But it was an important lesson. What was remarkable was that after the first session I realised that they would have been capable of doing it. Not me – but they would. Real artistry needs more time. You can do an exciting performance on one rehearsal, but you can’t build anything, you can’t change the string sound. And that’s the advantage I have here at the BBC.’ Let others beware.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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