Emmanuel Villaume, music director and chief conductor

PKF History

The Orchestra's Genesis

When reading that the PKF – Prague Philharmonia, former Prague Philharmonia, was founded in 1994, an inquisitive person immediately asks by whom and why, whether the orchestra originated “out of nowhere” or linked up to another ensemble… The establishment of an orchestra alone gives rise to a number of questions. The following text does not give a detailed account of the ensemble’s genesis but strives to answer the question of why and how it came to life and in so doing illuminates the motivations of those who have connected a large part of their lives with the orchestra.

Intersection of Ideas

Perhaps every young Czech who in the pre-revolution times prepared for a career as a professional musician encountered the phenomenon of the Army Artistic Ensemble. It was about to undergo reconstruction, with the new management planning to convert a large symphony orchestra into a top-class professional chamber ensemble. And so as to carry out this intention, they needed to engage an outstanding conductor. 

At the time, elsewhere in Prague, a small music label came up with the idea of recording a CD featuring the rising star Eva Urbanová. An orchestra was sought. Someone mentioned that there was one, the New Czech Chamber Orchestra, said to be a distinguished string ensemble, helmed by Jiří Bělohlávek. 

Precious few though were aware that the New Czech Chamber Orchestra was facing a crisis. The young musicians headed by Tomáš Hanus and “supervised” by Jiří Bělohlávek realised that if they were to make progress they would have to make their activity regular. Moreover, many of the players had begun thinking of what they would do after they had completed their studies. Some of them had already been permanently engaged in orchestras or theatres, yet what they would like to do more than anything else was to play together. They initially considered the idea of connecting a small orchestra with the army unfeasible...

In April 1994, Jiří Bělohlávek signed an agreement with the Ministry of Defence stipulating the formation of and support for a chamber orchestra within the then Army Artistic Ensemble, for at least five years. From 24 to 30 June, an audition for members of the orchestra took place in the Gallery of the newly refurbished building of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. Some 184 musicians registered and 114 actually turned up. The greatest interest was in the wind instruments section: 29 clarinettists, 24 flautists, 20 oboists. A tense atmosphere of expectation reigned, occasionally relieved by bursts of laughter, for instance, when Radek Baborák, the future soloist of the Czech, Munich and Berlin Philharmonics, asked: “Does anybody have a horn here”, before he became one of the founding members of the new orchestra. An orchestra to which Jiří Bělohlávek gave the name Prague Philharmonia.

Young Musicians

At the end of the 1980s, numerous Czech students of music academies and conservatories participated in a wonderful project devised by the celebrated Italian conductor Claudio Abbado – the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester.

One evening in 1991, torrential applause was dying away at Vienna’s Musikverein. The twenty or so Czech members of the Mahler Jugendorchester were overwhelmed with mixed feelings of pride and sadness: that year’s concerts were over, would they ever again experience beautiful moments with music and dozens of friends from all over Europe? No wonder then that two girls came up with the proposal of establishing their own orchestra at home. Following the initial scepticism, it started to dawn on everyone that the notion might actually have a chance of coming true. When the young musicians set out to visit various places in Bohemia and Moravia, the idea was already sprouting in their heads like a spring bud.

The invitation to attend a summer gathering in Machov, East Bohemia, which took place during the 1992 holidays, was the result of the well-considered intentions of several colleagues, among them Tomáš Hanus, a gifted violinist and above all (at the time) a student of conducting at the Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Brno. The Academy actually became the spawning ground of the future orchestra, with the majority of its members studying in Brno. For the next two years, trips from the Moravian metropolis to East Bohemia and subsequently throughout the country were motivated by the activity of the new orchestra which, following heated discussion, was given the name Giovanni Virtuosi. A truly ambitious title, yet one entirely in keeping with the self-confidence of youth.

First Steps on the journey

The news spread through Prague like wildfire. Bělohlávek had joined the Army Artistic Ensemble! The newspaper headlines were more restrained though: “Bělohlávek’s Philharmonic at the starting block”; “Prague Philharmonia for the first time”; “Army needs artists”; “Czech Philharmonic reserve”... On all accounts, the foundation of the new orchestra aroused truly extraordinary attention. The ensemble was, after all, headed by one of the finest Czech conductors, a figure of great renown who could pick and choose. Many simply didn’t understand it. And, admittedly, they couldn’t, since the orchestra hadn’t even presented themselves.

The debut concert was symbolically scheduled for 17 November 1994, the anniversary of the day when the “Velvet Revolution” started. Bělohlávek decided to spend more than a quarter of a year diligently rehearsing with the orchestra! He was determined only to appear in public once he was certain that the ensemble was properly prepared. Bělohlávek divided the work according to his experience with the world’s finest orchestras. Yet he had never before encountered that which he was encountering now. Absolute concentration. Total attention. Discipline. Excellent preparation at home. Enthusiasm. And, above all, the sheer joy of work.

At the beginning of September, the preparations for the first concert and concurrent recording of the debut CD for Supraphon were in full swing. The rehearsals at Pohořelec alternated with recording the music by the “Terezín” composer Pavel Haas at the Domovina studio. Amid the hectic work schedule, the orchestra received an offer to give a brief performance marking the gala reopening of the Žofín Palace. Initially, Bělohlávek hesitated yet, impressed by the smoothly running preparations, ultimately agreed. And so it came to pass that, on 24 September 1994, the Prague Philharmonia appeared in public for the very first time, playing pieces by Smetana, Fibich, Dvořák, folk songs. And the Czech national anthem.

The recording for Supraphon proceeded as scheduled. What wasn’t scheduled though was another offer in October, of the kind that isn’t turned down. Since the Czech Philharmonic was on a foreign tour, the Chancellor Ivan Medek invited the Prague Philharmonia to Prague Castle to perform at the Vladislav Hall on 28 October at a gala concert marking the anniversary of the foundation of the first Czechoslovak Republic. In November 1994, the rehearsals were culminating, as was the recording of another CD, featuring Mozart arias as sung by Eva Urbanová. At last, the day celebrated by the whole country had arrived: the 5th anniversary of the student march and the start of the collapse of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia also became the most glorious day for “Bělohlávek’s orchestra”, as the Prague Philharmonia, its chief conductor’s protests notwithstanding, was dubbed by the general public. The venue where the event took place was the exquisite Spanish Hall at Prague Castle. The 17th of November 1994 was determined as the day of the orchestra’s official public debut. During the gala concert, the Prague Philharmonia opened with Suk’s Serenade in E flat major, followed by a performance by a quartet of soloists – the oboist Jurij Likin, the clarinettist Ludmila Peterková, the bassoonist Tomáš Františ and the horn player Radek Baborák – of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Four Winds. After the intermission, the orchestra dazzled with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. The audience was predominantly rather stiff, made up mainly of politicians, yet also present were “ordinary” music-lovers who were curious about the new orchestra. The applause was torrential and sincere. Another milestone on the long journey had been reached. Was it the real start?

Consonance

One day, a regular lesson given by Jiří Bělohlávek was attended by one of his best students, the talented violinist Tomáš Hanus. Like a bolt from the blue, Hanus asked Bělohlávek whether he could occasionally lend a hand with “a small student orchestra...”

The very first encounter must have been like an apparition for both parties. A famous conductor and nameless students. “How will he surprise us? Will he be better than Abbado?” The students eagerly listened to his first words, trying to read from his gestures and face.

For Bělohlávek, the orchestra was a balm for his soul. He saw open eyes and hearts, keen young musicians swallowing each and every of his instructions and, what’s more, imploring: “More, more! Wring us out, require the impossible, we want to be the best and we believe we will become the best with you!” After a long day’s work in a barn smelling of hay and hot summer sun, Bělohlávek and the students sat by the fire. Just like the first, the second gathering in Machov too was replete with music, as well as laughter, swimming and evening campfires. And consonance. Wasn’t this consonance precisely that which Bělohlávek had been seeking for such a long time? How come that after all the years he had only found a truly professional approach here, among the young musicians, fledgling professionals, professionals in the right sense of the word? Would it make sense for him to connect his artistic path with theirs?

Great successes were garnered at the first few concerts the ensemble gave – under the title New Czech Chamber Orchestra – under the baton of Tomáš Hanus or Jiří Bělohlávek, who nodded in approval. It was 1993 and the future chief conductor kneaded in his hands a material he had long dreamt of. The idea had materialised and his soul finally began sucking in oxygen. His appetite was whetted.

Start number two

The entire first season, 1994/95, was marked by seeking a style of work. The orchestra gave its first concerts at the Rudolfinum, within which it launched the CD featuring Eva Urbanová, travelled throughout the country, appearing in Litoměřice, Kroměříž, Stříbro, Vyškov, Písek, Pardubice, Plzeň, Ostrava, Kutná Hora, Brno and other cities and towns, and recorded new albums too. The orchestra began convincing the naysayers of the validity of its existence. 

On 6 May 1995, the Prague Philharmonia received, in direct TV broadcast from Litoměřice, the prestigious Classic 94 award for the musical newcomer of the year, with the clarinettist Ludmila Peterková and the horn player Radek Baborák taking home another two prizes. The Minister of Defence was sitting in the auditorium... Yet on 30 September 1995, the Army Artistic Ensemble, now bearing the name Ministry of Defence Artistic Ensemble, was disbanded and the orchestra, which had a number of concerts scheduled, was suddenly out of work.

It may seem incredible, but not for a moment did any of the orchestra’s members have any doubts as to its continuing operation, even though at the time no one had any idea of how. Frenzied efforts, negotiations and seeking filled the summer and autumn of 1995. The Chairman of the Parliament, Milan Uhde, got wind of the fate of the promising ensemble and the subsequent talks resulted in the decision that the failing to keep the pledge that the orchestra would exist for a minimum of five years had to be rectified. In the meantime, another helping hand appeared. It was lent by the Smíchov Centre of Culture foundation, operating at the “Women’s Homes” in Prague, which housed a small revamped theatre bearing the name of the company running it – Akcent. In September 1995 the orchestra moved into the premises. Without any financial means, the Prague Philharmonia gave concerts until the end of 1995. How strong must the musicians’ conviction have been when, amid the situation of absolute uncertainty, they launched their concert cycle at the Rudolfinum on 30 September 1995? The performance featured Mahler’s Adagietto and Rückert-Lieder as sung by the amazing Dagmar Pecková, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and Symphony No. 7, the true triumph of joy. Was this orchestra really about to disappear off the map? 

When the Parliament adopted the law on a new type of non-profit organisation (termed “public benefit company”), the matter was decided. Jiří Bělohlávek duly submitted a proposal for founding the non-profit organisation under the title Prague Philharmonia. On 13 March 1996, the orchestra was one of the first such companies to be registered.

The Prague Philharmonia launched itself for the second time. Would it be the last?

Epilogue

A professional orchestra that does not have a permanent financial backer is sailing on choppy seas. While the orchestra plays on the deck and garners one success after another both at home and abroad, below-decks the boilers must be fed. The Prague Philharmonia was being steered by the musicians themselves, young enthusiasts who had decided to make their artistic dream come true. Fortunately, many people had come to understand that the world cannot do without spiritual “nourishment” and that those who provide today’s nervous and hectic society with an oasis of peace and stimulation of the mind deserve to be supported. The Ministry of Culture, the City of Prague and a number of private donators, ranging from large companies to regular listeners, have jointly made it possible that the dream called the Prague Philharmonia (recently renamed the PKF – Prague Philharmonia) has been lived for fifteen years now. They all are richly deserving of thanks, as are all those who at the time of turbulent beginnings believed in the power of the idea and, often facing up to the malice of the grudging, helped to recast the idea into reality.