Music of Gustav Mahler will open the 123rd season of the Czech Philharmonic. The newly appointed chief conductor and music director Semyon Bychkov will conduct Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, with Christianne Karg and Elisabeth Kulman performing the vocal parts. Prague Philharmonic Choir will be lead by Lukáš Vasilek.
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor (“Resurrection”)
Prague Philharmonic Choir
The Prague Philharmonic Choir (PPC) is a leading European vocal ensemble, and as one of the Czech Republic´s foremost artistic institutions operates under the trusteeship of the Czech Ministry of Culture. In the course of the choir´s long history since its foundation in 1935, it has been directed by a succession of some of the most distinguished Czech choirmasters (including among others Jan Kühn, Josef Veselka and Pavel Kühn). Since 2007 its principal choirmaster has been Lukáš Vasilek.
The PPC´s repertoire is centered primarily around oratorio and cantata works. In their presentation, the choir has worked with eminent international orchestras (e.g. the Czech Philharmonic, Berliner Philharmoniker, Israel Philharmonic, St Petersburg Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Dresden or Wiener Symphoniker, among others), and conductors (including Daniel Barenboim, Jiří Bělohlávek, Christoph Eschenbach, Vladimir Fedoseyev, Manfred Honeck, Jakub Hrůša, Tomáš Netopil, Gianandrea Noseda, Philippe Jordan, Fabio Luisi, Zubin Mehta or Sir Simon Rattle). Beyond its standard choral repertoire, the PPC is likewise active in the domain of opera, working regularly with the National Theatre in Prague, and since 2010 holding the status of choir in residence at the opera festival of Bregenz, Austria.
Apart from these commitments, the PPC engages in a number of its own projects. Since 2011 it has organized its own choral concert series in Prague, with a programme focused notably on presentations of less well known choral works, either a cappella or with chamber-scale instrumental accompaniment. The PPC has taken some of these choral projects abroad (including among other occasions its tours in the USA and Mexico in 2014, and in Russia in 2018). The choir regards as an inseparable part of its activity educational endeavours targeting the young generations. In this context, it has been involved in organizing a Choral Academy for students of singing, a project aimed at enabling young artists to acquire practical skills through work with a professional vocal ensemble; and with focus on young children, running a series of educational concerts and a programme of on-the-spot singing workshops in schools.
The PPC has to its credit an extensive discography, with many titles released by major international labels (e.g., Decca Classics, Deutsche Grammophon, Sony Classical and Supraphon). In recent years the choir has taken part in several unique recording projects, two of them in association with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. The first of these, a recording of Antonín Dvořák´s Stabat Mater (Decca, 2017), with Jiří Bělohlávek conducting, received the prestigious Diapason d´or de l´année award for the year´s best album in the sacred music category. The second, a recording of Bohuslav Martinů´s The Epic of Gilgamesh (Supraphon, 2017), under the baton of Manfred Honeck, won several awards in the United Kingdom, plus another Diapason d´or. The album featuring Bohuslav Martinů´s Kytice (Supraphon, 2017), on which the PPC collaborated with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tomáš Netopil, was cited as recording of the month by the prestigious British web magazine MusicWeb International. Its recording of Bohuslav Martinů´s chamber cantatas (Supraphon, 2016) scored top rankings in the influential British magazines, Gramophone (Editor´s Choice) and BBC Music Magazine (Choral & Song Choice), in the latter along with nomination for its annual award in the choral music category.
The PPC´s many commitments in the 2018/2019 season include among others concert appearances at the Dvořák Prague, Beethovenfest Bonn and Prague Spring festivals, a tour in Belgium, a performance in New York´s Carnegie Hall (Mahler´s Symphony No. 2, with the Czech Philharmonic and its principal conductor, Semyon Bychkov; this will be followed up by the recording of the same symphony for Decca Classics), and further work with the Israel Philharmonic, this time under the baton of Manfred Honeck. The PPC´s 2018/2019 concert season will be rounded off by a concert at the Smetana Litomyšl Festival, where it will perform with the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev Mussorgsky´s opera Boris Godunov; and finally, appearances, for the tenth time already, at the opera festival of Bregenz, Austria.
Lukáš Vasilek, principal conductor of the Prague Philharmonic Choir (PPC), studied conducting at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, and musicology at the Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague. For eleven seasons from 1998 he was conductor of the Foerster Female Chamber Choir, and between 2005 and 2007 was also second choirmaster of the Prague National Theatre´s opera chorus.
He took up his post at the helm of the PPC in 2007. Apart from preparing and conducting the choir´s a cappella concert productions, he has been building up the PPC´s repertoire set for participation in large-scale cantata, oratorio and opera projects, working with leading international conductors (Barenboim, Bělohlávek, Eschenbach, Honeck, Hrůša, Jordan, Luisi, Mehta, Noseda or Rattle, among others) and orchestras (including the Berliner Philharmoniker, Czech Philharmonic, Israel Philharmonic, St Petersburg Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Dresden or Wiener Symphoniker). Since 2010 the PPC under Vasilek´s direction has guest appeared regularly at the opera festival in Bregenz, Austria.
Lukáš Vasilek is signed under numerous recordings made by the PPC for various major labels, including Decca Classics, Deutsche Grammophon, Sony Classical and Supraphon. In 2016 the last mentioned of these issued an album of Bohuslav Martinů´s cantatas which was nominated for the BBC Music Magazine´s annual award in the choral category, among other plaudits.
In 2010 Lukáš Vasilek formed the Martinů Voices vocal ensemble whose repertoire he has focused primarily on 20th- and 21st-century choral music. He is likewise occasionally active as an orchestra conductor.
Christiane Karg was born in Feuchtwangen, Bavaria. She studied singing at the Salzburg Mozarteum with Heiner Hopfner and Wolfgang Holzmair, where she was awarded the Lilli Lehmann Medal, and at the Music Conservatory in Verona. In 2009 she was named Young Performer of the Year by Opernwelt magazine. She has twice been awarded the prestigious Echo Klassik prize: in 2010 for her debut Lied CD Verwandlung – Lieder eines Jahres, accompanied by Burkhard Kehring and in 2016 for her disc of concert arias Scene! with Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo. Her latest disc Parfume is a collection of French songs recorded with David Afkham and the Bamberger Symphoniker.
She was a member of the International Opera Studio at the Hamburg State Opera before joining the ensemble of the Frankfurt Opera in 2008 where her roles included Susanna, Musetta, Pamina, Servilia, Zdenka and the title role of La Calisto. She returned to Frankfurt in 2013 to sing Mélisande to great critical acclaim in Claus Guth’s new production of Pelleas et Mélisande and in 2015 to sing Sophie (Der Rosenkavalier).
In 2006 she made an auspicious debut at the Salzburg Festival and has returned to sing Amor (Orfeo ed Euridice) with Riccardo Muti and Zerlina (Don Giovanni) with Yannick Nézet-Séguin. She is a regular guest at the Theater an der Wien where she has sung Ismene (Mitridate), Telaire (Castor and Pollux) and Hero (Beatrice et Benedict). At the Bayerische Staatsoper Munich she has sung Ighino (Palestrina), Pamina and Blanche (Les Dialogues des Carmelites). At the Komische Oper Berlin she has sung Musetta (La Boheme) and Norina (Don Pasquale) and at the Opera de Lille, Anne Trulove (The Rakes Progress). At the Dresden Semperoper she has sung Sophie with Christian Thielemann. In 2015 she made her house debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, singing Pamina; in 2016 she made her house debut at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, singing Sophie and her U.S operatic debut singing Susana at the Lyric Opera, Chicago; she returned to the Lyric Opera in the 2016/17 season for Pamina (Die Zauberflöte).
Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, Semyon Bychkov was born in Leningrad in 1952, immigrated to the United States in 1975, and has been based in Europe since the mid-1980s. Like the Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov has one foot firmly in the cultures both of the East and the West.
Following his early concerts with the Czech Philharmonic in 2013, Bychkov and the Orchestra devised The Tchaikovsky Project, a series of concerts, residencies and studio recordings which allowed them the luxury of exploring Tchaikovsky’s music together. Its first fruit was released by Decca in October 2016, followed in August 2017 by the release of the Manfred symphony. The projectculminates in 2019 with residencies in Prague, Vienna and Paris, and Decca’s release of all Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, the three piano concertos, Romeo & Juliet, Serenade for Strings and Francesca da Rimini.
Fourteen years after leaving the former Soviet Union, Bychkov returned to St Petersburg in 1989 as the Philharmonic’s Principal Guest Conductor, the same year as he was named Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris. His international career had taken off several years earlier when a series of high-profile cancellations resulted in invitations to conduct the New York Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. In 1997, he was appointed Chief Conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne, and the following year, Chief Conductor of the Dresden Semperoper.
Bychkov conducts the major orchestras and at the major opera houses in the U.S. and Europe. In addition to his title with the Czech Philharmonic, he holds the Günter Wand Conducting Chair with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with which he appears annually at the BBC Proms, and the honorary Klemperer Chair of Conducting at the Royal Academy of Music. He was named “Conductor of the Year” at the 2015 International Opera Awards. On the concert platform, the combination of innate musicality and rigorous Russian pedagogy has ensured that Bychkov’s performances are highly anticipated. With repertoire that spans four centuries, the coming season brings two weeks of concerts with the New York Philharmonic, which includes the US première of Thomas Larcher’s Symphony No. 2, and the Cleveland Orchestra where he will conduct Detlev Glanert, Martinů and Smetana. In Europe, his concerts include performances with the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Munich and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras, Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, and the Royal Concertgebouw.
Bychkov’s recording career began in 1986 when he signed with Philips and began a significant collaboration which produced an extensive discography with the Berlin Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio, Royal Concertgebouw, Philharmonia Orchestra, London Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris. Subsequently a series of benchmark recordings – the result of his 13-year collaboration (1997–2010) with the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne – include a complete cycle of Brahms’s Symphonies, and works by Strauss, Mahler, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Verdi, Detlev Glanert and York Höller. His recording of Wagner’s Lohengrin was voted BBC Music Magazine’s Record of the Year in 2010; and his recent recording of Schmidt’s Symphony No. 2 with the Vienna Philharmonic was selected as BBC Music Magazine’s Record of the Month.
Elisabeth Kulman is one of today’s most sought-after singers and leading authorities in the international classical music scene. She impresses audiences and critics alike with her rich, colorful timbre, her charismatic stage personality and her musical versatility.
She studied voice with Helena Lazarska at the Vienna Music University, made her debut as Pamina in 2001 at the Volksoper in Vienna and enjoyed early success as a soprano. Since 2005 Elisabeth Kulman has been singing the major parts of the mezzo and alto repertoire and quickly became a favorite of the audience. Her operatic repertoire, which she established in large parts as a member of the ensemble at the Vienna State Opera, includes works from Gluck, Wagner and Verdi to Weill. Her symphonic repertoire ranges from the Passions by Bach, Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder, Dvořák’s Stabat Mater and Mahler’s Lieder for orchestra to Schnittke’s Faust-Cantata.
Since 2010 Elisabeth Kulman has been working as a freelance artist. She is a much sought-after soloist in the metropolitan centers of the music world: Vienna, Paris, London, Munich, Berlin, Tokyo, Salzburg, Moscow, etc. She works regularly with world-class orchestras and conductors such as Zubin Mehta, Kirill Petrenko, Christian Thielemann, Philippe Jordan, Herbert Blomstedt, Mariss Jansons, Kent Nagano and Marek Janowski. She enjoyed a particularly close collaboration with Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
Since 2015 Elisabeth Kulman has been focusing her artistic activities on recitals (together with her longtime accompanist Eduard Kutrowatz), concerts and operas in concert. She is especially devoted to unconventional projects: “Mussorgsky Dis-Covered” with an international jazz quartet, “Mahler Lieder” and “Wer wagt mich zu höhnen?” with the ensemble Amarcord Wien as well as “Hungaro Tune” with symphony orchestra and jazz soloists. In her latest solo program, the music show “La femme c’est moi”, Elisabeth Kulman joyfully correlates different genres with each other in a very personal way, always meeting the highest artistic standards. Arranged for chamber orchestra by Tscho Theissing she performs famous opera arias (not only from the mezzo repertoire), classic “Lieder”, show tunes as well as songs by the Beatles and Michael Jackson.
Gustav Mahler worked on his Second Symphony with interruptions for six years from 1888 to 1894. He started the composition as the Kapellmeister of the Royal Opera in Budapest, and continued after being appointed the first Kapellmeister at the Hamburg Opera. At that time, Mahler called on the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow to play a sketch of the first movement of his Second Symphony to him. Büllow was greatly impressed by Mahler and ranked him among the best contemporary conductors, but did not have faith in Mahler’s ambitions as a composer. Mahler had to devote most of his time and energy to the conducting of operas and orchestral concerts, and again postponed the composition of the symphony, the problem being the finale. However, Bülow’s death on 12 February 1894 liberated Mahler from his inhibitions; Bülow even gave him an impulse in a posthumous sense. A funeral service for Bülow was held in Hamburg’s St. Michael Church, which Mahler attended. The choir sang Die Auferstehung after Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock with accompaniment of organ and Mahler decided to use this text in the final movement; at first being reluctant because of his fear of being considered a Beethoven’s imitator.
The first movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony opens with deep tremolo of the strings, joined by the woodwinds, and slowly builds up the heroic main theme. The secondary theme of a ceremonious character appears also in the fugue of the final movement, framing the whole composition. The second movement has the character of a delicate Ländler and represents the remembrance of “the joyful times in the life of the deceased”. The third movement is based on Mahler’s setting of poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn – Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt [St. Anthony preaching to the fish]. The same applies to the fourth movement, in which Urlicht [Primeval Light], sung by an alto, calls for relief from worldly woes. The final fifth movement is based on Klopstock’s verses which Mahler adapted. The premiere of the Second Symphony took place under composerʼs baton on 4 March 1895 in Berlin, albeit without the vocal movements. Mahler presented the complete symphony in Berlin on 13 December 1895. Mahler was accused by some critics of lacking the fundamental prerequisite of a symphony composer, namely having control over its form, but the vocal sections were accepted with understanding and the final choral movement was greeted as the best part of the symphony. The conductor Bruno Walter later stated that “it was a day which marked Mahler’s rise”. The Prague premiere of Mahler’s Second Symphony took place on 18 December 1903 with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Oskar Nedbal with additional musicians from the orchestra of Prague’s Neues Deutsches Theater and the Prague Hlahol and Hlahol Vinohrady choirs.
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