1 June 2017

Jiří Bělohlávek, 71, Czech Conductor Who Brought Lyricism and Narrative Thrust to Slavic Works, has Died

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JIŘÍ BĚLOHLÁVEK, 71, who during the course of a five-decade conducting career led totemic performances of Slavic symphonic works and operas from the podiums of the world’s most important opera houses and orchestras, has died. 

Bělohlávek died on Thursday after a long illness. His death was reported by the Czech Philharmonic, of which he first became the chief conductor in 1990 before being reappointed to the role in 2010. 

A statement on the orchestra’s Facebook page read: “It is with great sorrow that we announce the passing of Jiří Bělohlávek, chief conductor and music director of the Czech Philharmonic […] following his brave struggle with a serious disease.”

Born in Prague, much of Bělohlávek’s artistic ambit was initially centered within then Czechoslovakia, and throughout his career he remained a figure deeply embedded in the cultural life of the Czech Republic. He won the Czech National Conducting Competition in 1970, and, in the early seventies, he served a two-year stint as the assistant conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. In 1977, he took on the role of chief conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra, where he would remain for more than a decade before returning to the Czech Philharmonic in 1990 as the band’s chief conductor; that assignment proved short-lived and he left the Philharmonic in 1992 after the group voted to appoint German conductor Gerd Albrecht to its podium. Bělohlávek went on to found the Prague Philharmonia in 1993, and led the orchestra in a number of high-profile appearances, including a televised performance at the BBC Proms in 2004; the following year he became the group’s conductor laureate. In 1997, Bělohlávek was appointed as the principal guest conductor of the Prague National Theatre, the center of Czech cultural life and the nation's most important opera house. 


Bělohlávek’s international conducting career began in earnest in 1995 when the BBC Symphony Orchestra appointed him as the group’s principal guest conductor, a title that he retained through 2000. He was named as the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor in February 2005, and his auspicious tenure began with his ascension to the podium on the first night of the 2006 Proms. The following year, his contract with the BBCSO was extended through 2012 and he became the first non-native English speaker to lead the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Last Night of the Proms. In 2012, Bělohlávek assumed the title of conductor laureate with the BBCSO, and, the same year, he was bestowed an honorary CBE "for services to music.” Bělohlávek’s most recent appearance with the Orchestra was in April, when he conducted the group in a performance of Dvořák’s Requiem. 

Bělohlávek’s acrimonious split from the Czech Philharmonic in 1992 did not prevent his eventual homecoming to the group, and, in 2010, he was renamed as the symphony’s chief conductor. Reassuming its helm beginning with the 2012-13 season, his initial four-year contract was renewed in 2017 and extended through the 2021-22 season. 

On concert stages, Bělohlávek went on to lead numerous international orchestras—including the Berlin Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Leipzig's Gewandhaus Orchestra—often in inexorable, deeply felt performances of works by Dvořák, Smetana and Martinů. He also made frequent appearances in opera houses that included the Met, Covent Garden, Paris Opera and Glyndebourne; it was at the latter, in both 2003 and 2007, that Bělohlávek paced soprano Nina Stemme in superlative performances of what would become the soprano's calling-card role. In 2004, Bělohlávek made his Metropolitan Opera debut leading performances of Kát'a Kabanová that featured Karita Mattila in the title role; his interpretation of that opera, along with subsequent Met performances of Jenůfa and The Makropoulos Case (both featuring Mattila), Rusalka and Eugene Onegin were notable for being suffused an enthralling admixture of lyricism and narrative thrust. Bělohlávek was more than one of his nation's most compelling conductors and musical advocates—he was a storyteller of the highest order. spacer 

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