Prague Spring & the Man Who Makes It Sing

Inta Wiest looks at the music festival & the man behind it

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PUBLISHED 26.04.2006
LAST UPDATED 11.05.2006



Prague Spring & the Man Who Makes It Sing



Written by Inta Wiest
for Bridge Magazine


This article first appeared in the monthly magazine of the International Women´s Association of Prague.  For more information, see www.volny.cz/iwap

Springtime in Prague - so welcome after this exceptionally long winter! Next month the city will be in full bloom and resound with music. On a bitter-cold day in March, with snow turning to sleet and spring still a distant dream, I made my way to the offices of the Prague Spring International Music Festival to talk to its general director, Roman Bělor. I was welcomed by a tall, lean man, who is passionately devoted to music and the festival that he brings to the public each May.

Roman Bělor, born 1958, comes from a musical background. His father sang in the National Theater opera chorus and the Prague Philharmonic choir. Roman, too, sang in choirs as a youth but ended up with a technical education, studying energy management at the Prague Technical University. After graduation, he worked for seven years in engineering. When the Velvet Revolution came, the social and political changes in his country inspired him to turn his hobby into his profession. In the spring of 1990 he heard that the Prague Symphony was looking for an orchestra manager; he applied for the job and got it. Two years later he became the managing director, a position he held until 2001. Thus he was the perfect candidate for general director of the Prague Spring Festival when Oleg Podgorny, the previous director, died suddenly of a stroke in 2000. Mr. Bělor took command of the festival in 2001 and has been at the helm ever since.

The Prague Spring International Music Festival, the biggest and oldest classical music festival in the Czech Lands, was started in 1946 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Mr. Bělor feels it is most fitting that the Prague Spring political movement of 1968 borrowed its name from the much older music festival. Now in its 61st year, the festival has become world-famous, featuring artists and orchestras, both Czech and foreign, of the highest quality.

Since 1952 it has been a tradition to open the festival on May 12, the anniversary of Bedřich Smetana's death, with his cycle of symphonic poems, "Má vlast" (My Country). But this year, as a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the festival, Zdeněk Mácal, the current music director of the Czech Philharmonic, will open it May 11, with a repeat of the very first Prague Spring program from 1946. "Má vlast" will be heard the following day.

Each year the festival has an overall theme commemorating important musical anniversaries. It comes as no surprise that a main theme this year will be the music of Mozart. A highlight will be his "Prague Symphony" in D minor, performed on May 13 by the Vienna Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. A second focus will be on Dimitri Shostakovich, marking the 100th birthday of this great 20th century Russian composer. Four of his symphonies, as well as violin and cello concertos, will be given. There will also be special attention to Slovak music, bringing Slovak composers as well as leading contemporary interpreters to the festival. The International Music Competition for young artists, sponsored by Prague Spring each year, will feature the organ and the cello.

The planning for a festival program takes anywhere from two to four years, so Mr. Bělor and his staff are not only busy working on 2007 and 2008 but are thinking ahead to 2009. The selection of artists who will perform is a two-way street, with Prague Spring inviting orchestras and artists to the festival on the one hand, and agencies and individual artists coming to Prague Spring with offers to perform on the other. Now that the Czech Republic has joined the EU, artists are charging international rates but Mr. Bělor strives to keep the cost of tickets affordable. On occasion he has to turn down an artist because the fees are simply too high.

About one third of the Prague Spring budget comes from the Ministry of Culture and the City of Prague and only 15-20% from ticket sales. The rest comes from corporate sponsorship and private donations. That means that fund-raising is crucial and Mr. Bělor says collecting money is one half of the job of his institution. He hopes that EU membership will eventually provide some financial support. There are already a few Prague Spring projects that have EU backing. About 85% of the Prague Spring audience is Czech and, of the foreigners attending the festival concerts, many are people who live in Prague. In spite of rising costs, Mr. Bělor has not increased ticket prices, as he wants to give everyone a chance to attend the festival.

Mr. Bělor supports the introduction of popular music, such as high-class jazz, ethno and rock music, in the festival. This has attracted a younger audience. Starting last year, some morning and late-night concerts have been added to the program and these have been well attended.

Women performers have an increasingly greater role in music, both as soloists and members of orchestras. About 50% of the artists taking part in Prague Spring are women. The only area where men still dominate is conducting. Mr. Bělor could not say why that is so, but he thinks "conducting may be the last fortress of the male." He believes that it is important to have a balance between men and women working as a team. "There should be equality, not just in family life but in all spheres."

A major challenge for the future of Prague Spring is keeping up with the age of modern media technology. The festival has to maintain its character but at the same time, in order to survive, it has to be flexible and up to date in the media competition for the interest of the public. If the festival had more money, Mr. Bělor would like to take on more prestigious and risky projects.

Mr. Bělor's wife, Jitka, is a pediatrician and they have two children, Marek, 17, and Klara, 14. Marek sings in a choir, as his father and grandfather did, but Mr. Bělor does not think his son will pursue a career in music. Klara takes after her mother and is interested in the sciences. Music is still Mr. Bělor's hobby but he also loves painting and often goes to art exhibits. His favorite composer is Leoš Janáček. Mr. Bělor also enjoys traveling and often went on the road with the Prague Symphony. Nowadays he likes to travel in the Czech Republic, observing the changes in his land, seeing small towns as they develop and flourish.

The 61st Prague Spring offers 46 performances, all of these in a three-week period! Tickets went on sale mid- December and some concerts have been sold out. But Mr. Bělor says that sometimes bookings are canceled, so if you have a concert you really want to hear, check with the box office periodically. There may still be a chance. Tickets are available at the Rudolfinum and Ticketpro. For more information, check the Prague Spring website: www. festival.cz

Don't miss the opportunity to take part in this unique and wonderful musical experience. After all, what is spring in Prague without Prague Spring?


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