THE PRAGUE PHILHARMONIC CHOIR’S SINGULAR SOUND
Over the past few decades, the Prague Philharmonic Choir has been the most significant ambassador of Czech vocal music in the world. The list of the conductors and orchestras it has worked with, and the venues at which it has performed, is ample witness in this respect. The rejuvenation of the choir, currently celebrating its 80th anniversary, is promising indeed. The interview with the conductor Lukáš Vasilek started with reminiscences of the event of the season and ended with the choir’s moving into new premises.
Let us recollect this year’s remarkable celebration of the Prague Philharmonic Choir’s (PPC) 80th birthday. The ensemble’s performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Les Noces was a truly seminal event. I have not seen anything as fundamental on the Czech choral music scene over the recent years. Why did you opt to include the piece in your programme, how did you feel about it, and do you intend to perform the original version with dance? And how do you personally perceive the choir’s anniversary?
Above all, I think highly of having been able to enjoy such a momentous anniversary. And of having had the opportunity to co-create its celebration. It was definitely one of the greatest moments we have experienced working together. Exploring and performing Stravinsky’s Les Noces is a touchstone for each and every professional choir, as it shows how capable or incapable the singers are. Apart from other things, I wanted to show at the concert that the PPC are currently in good form, and Les Noces suited splendidly for such a “demonstration of power”. Yet the main reason was the fact that it is a brilliant piece of music, as extraordinary as the ensemble’s anniversary. Le Noces undoubtedly deserves to be performed with ballet. I would be happy to see in the future a team capable of producing such a large-scale project. And I sincerely hope that the PPC will participate in it!
What other pieces of similar significance would you like to perform with the PPC?
Le Noces is so specific that it is virtually impossible to compare with any other works. But I am convinced that all the titles we have included in our choral cycle are significant – each of them in a different sense, of course. Yet, in my opinion, the degree of relevance does not rest in the extent to which a piece has been written about in the literature. I do my best to make sure that all the works have a good season to be in our programmes, be they well-known or unknown, so the audience don’t get bored. In fact, I cannot imagine anything duller than a boring and lengthy concert of choral music. I hope that our concerts are not like that.
You like compiling “provocative” programmes of a cappella concerts. You must have already been giving thoughts to the 2015/16 season. What do you have in store? What can we look forward to?
We don’t intend to be provocative. Our aim is to make programmes that bring something new and novel, while retaining high quality and appeal for the audience and performers alike. I think that programmes featuring such aspects should be commonplace, not something unheard-of and exotic, something provocative. Unfortunately, the standard of the concert programming is quite low in our country. Often a great accomplishment is automatically deemed to be a programme made up of extremely challenging and unlistenable compositions, which the performers master, or revivals of pieces that have been long – and rightly – fallen into oblivion. Yet that is wrong. Concerts are not given for the sake of concerts, they should be prepared for audiences, otherwise there is no point to them whatsoever. If, then, our endeavours would help in raising the provincial Czech “bar”, it is worth continuing to provoke. When it comes to the next season, we are yet to trim the details, but I can reveal what we have prepared for our choral music cycle’s opening concert. It will take place in December at the Rudolfinum within the Bohuslav Martinů Days festival, precisely on the day of the 125th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The entire programme is based on Martinů pieces, which, however, form a very nice contrast to each other. In the first half, our ladies will sing The Legend of St. Dorothea,with a specially arranged chamber instrumental accompaniment, while the gentlemen will perform the Mount of Three Lights. In the second part of the concert, the whole choir will sing the Romance of the Dandelions and Mikeš of the Mountains. I personally am delighted with this exceptional programme.
In 2014, the PPC gave more than one hundred public performances. Being so busy must be really exhausting for the singers, the conductor and, after all, the management who have to arrange everything.
Each preparation needs time and composure. And the singers need to have certain conditions so as to excel at every concert, to give the top-notch performance they are expected to deliver. Last year was extremely challenging, and all of us have realised that pursuing such a path is not the healthiest thing to do for the choir. Lack of rest is a factor dangerous for singing. Admittedly, a professional singer possessing a good technique is capable of disguising fatigue, yet only to a certain degree. Fortunately, we did not experience any lapse, and all the performances were flawless. Nevertheless, it may not have turned out well, and thus we have decided not to take such risks. This year will be more modest as regards the number of concerts.
Let us move from the recent past to the near future. Another of this year’s seminal PPC projects in Prague will be a concert at the Prague Spring festival, scheduled to be held on 19 May at the Church of Saints Simon and Jude. It will mark an anniversary of a renowned Czech composer and feature Czech premieres. Could you define the concert’s conception and the works to be performed?
The concert will open with the English composer John Tavener’s Svyati, a deeply meditative piece, in which Orthodox song alternates with a solo cello. The work actually serves as a prologue to the following composition, Jan Hanuš’s Message, a dramatic cantata inspired by the death of Jan Palach, accompanied by two pianos, several percussion instruments, electric guitar and tape. It is also very impressive owing to the high-quality lyrics Hanuš used. The second half of the concert will start with the choral cycle Livonian Heritage by Estonia’s Veljo Tormis, treating in a highly effective manner the folk music of the long-perished Livonian nation. The cycle will receive its Czech premiere, as will the next item on the programme, Cloudburst by the young American composer Eric Whitacre. Harbouring onomatopoeia, it proves that new means of expression can today be brought to bear in choral music too and that it is possible to compose in an original manner. All the works on the programme have been tailor-made for the Church of Saints Simon and Jude. When it comes to acoustic problems, we will only have to tackle, and hopefully overcome, them in the case of Hanuš’s Message. Nevertheless, it is well worth the effort, as the piece wonderfully befits the milieu of the deconsecrated church.
Three days later, the choir will sing Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek. It must be a repertoire number of yours. What is specific about the work? And does your notion concord with Mr. Bělohlávek’s conception?
Mahler’s Third is indeed included in our core repertoire. The choral part, assigned to female and children’s choirs, is not difficult and it is actually quite short. Choruses are not the main pillars of the symphony – it is primarily based on the performances of the orchestra and the conductor. Yet the choruses imbue it with an excellent contrast, superbly enhancing its expression and content – owing precisely to its uncomplicated angelic tone. Maestro Bělohlávek and I have not previously collaborated on the symphony, but I do assume that we will understand each other just as well as we did when we worked together on other joint projects.
Which of your performances of Mahler’s Third have the choir the fondest memories of?
The question would, I think, be better answered by the choir’s female members. I myself have experienced two brilliant accounts – conducted by Ingo Metzmacher and Manfred Honeck. Yet I would like to highlight a very good recording our ladies have made with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and the conductor Riccardo Chailly, released in 2004 on Decca.
The PPC have become an informal ensemble in residence of the summer opera festival in Bregenz. What projects will you be involved in this year? What composition has been the most challenging for you to perform in Bregenz?
This year we will have to manage a very demanding task – our appearance in a production of The Tales of Hoffmann. The stage director Stefan Herheim is a towering figure of the contemporary musical drama, with all his creations being highly original and thoroughly elaborate. We know that our choir members will have to meet immense acting and movement requirements – yet we can look forward to interesting work with a superlative team. Besides that, we will perform at the festival in a production of Turandot, which will be the main title presented on the lake stage, and we are also scheduled to give a concert: along with the Wiener Symphoniker, we will sing Puccini’s Messa di Gloria. Our ultimately most challenging performance in Bregenz was in the production of André Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice in 2013. The chorus part in the opera is an incredibly difficult intonation and rhythm exercise. Our task was made even more difficult due to the complex conception of the famous director Keith Warner, who based the production on the veritable acting of all those involved. It was a Herculean task, yet it was certainly worth the effort. The production would go on to earn the International Opera Award.
Now a somewhat tricky, perhaps even unfair, question: what do you deem the most technically difficult pieces for large choir in the global repertoire?
Each of the pieces falling within the “most difficult” category entails different problems. Notorious in this regard is, for instance, Beethoven’s Missa solemnis – the soprano part in particular is lethal, extremely intense and extensive. Only a first-class choir, made up of seasoned professional, can sing the work well. The lower classical pitch would beseem the piece more than the high modern one, in which it is sung and played today – Beethoven’s mass would then be easier to sing, as well as better to listen to. It would sound softer, more colourful and definitely more euphonic. But it is not possible to change the modern instruments used by contemporary orchestras. The recordings of the composition with old instruments and in a lower pitch are truly beautiful. Another piece from the basic a cappella repertoire placing high demands on the singers is Sergey Rachmaninoff’s Vespers. It contains huge passages in slow tempos and unpleasant registers, in the most part without affording the singer the slightest opportunity to take a breath. To maintain the correct tuning alone is no easy matter, especially when the Vespers are performed en bloc as a cycle. A similarly tough nut to crack is Schnittke’s Concerto for Choir.
You have helmed the PPC for many years, hence you can generalise many a thing, see them within a context. How did the choir sing upon your arrival and how is it singing in 2015? What have you succeeded in improving?
I cannot assess the work done by my predecessors, nor do I want to. Every one of them did a great job with the PPC, certainly the maximum their faculties and nature allowed them. I cannot evaluate my own work either. I can only tell what I have been striving for in general – to attain a colourful and compact sound, pure intonation, rhythmic accuracy and expressive power. I believe that the systematic work we do every day has reflected in the choir’s performances.
Generations of singers have been gradually replaced. Has it anyhow influenced the sound?
The sound of ensembles like the PPC has most benefited from a well-balanced symbiosis between young and mature voices. Young singers have brought new energy and “zest” into the sound, while the older ones add profundity in colour and experience. One without the other would not work well. Nonetheless, the average age of the PPC singers is now considerably lower than it used to be.
Does the existence of your competitor in Brno have any impact on you, does it motivate you, for instance? Or is it of no relevance whatsoever and you have been pursuing your own path, without taking into account the other Czech and foreign choirs?
I think highly of the art of the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno, and wish them success. It is certainly good that there are two large professional choirs in the Czech Republic, choirs who can compete with one another. I think it is beneficial for increasing the quality of both ensembles. But I strive for the PPC to follow our own path. I do observe the work of similar choirs – competitors, if you will – and if they intrigue me I feel inspired. I deem the ultimately finest among large vocal ensembles to be German radio choirs, particularly those in Berlin and Munich. The two are the greatest models for me.
Do you think that the state should anyhow support tours abroad, where the choir does not only work but also serves as an ambassador of our culture?
Absolutely. We are no longer the “cheap goods” we used to be in the 1990s, while today the foreign organisers don’t have as much finance as previously. The times have changed, and top-notch projects often cannot do without government support. Money should be found for meaningful representation abroad. The PPC has performed at very prominent and “visible” venues, hence financial support for such important projects would definitely be a good investment. Last year, the Czech Philharmonic and our choir received finance from the Ministry of Culture for a tour of America. We are grateful for the support and, regarding the responses with which our concerts met there, by no means was the money down the drain.
Could you try to characterise your choir’s singing and specificities in a single sentence?
A colourful, soft and homogenous sound, whose beauty is so specific that it cannot be mistaken.
I have heard that the choir will move to a new place, where you would perhaps stay for a long time. What will be the new PPC address?
The new address will be quite prestigious, in the centre of Prague, and near a metro station to boot. We will have available two spacious studios and comfortable facilities for both the singers and the management. It may seem like a dream, but in all likelihood it will come true in the foreseeable future. I know no other cultural institution more deserving of something like that, and I look forward to the day when the Ministry of Culture and we will officially announce our relocation.
Harmonie (Czech Republic), April 2015
translation: Hilda Hearne