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Czech Philharmonic • Alain Altinoglu

Conductor Alain Altinoglu arranged Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande into the form of a suite. The programme of French music continues with a brilliant rhapsody for violin and orchestra by Maurice Ravel played by violinist Jiří Vodička. Also French is the performer of the organ part in Camille Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3 “Organ”.

Subscription series A | Duration of the programme 1 hour 30 minutes


Claude Debussy / arr. Alain Altinoglu
Pelléas et Mélisande, suite from the opera (22')
Très modéré
Plus lent
Pas vite
Très modéré et très expressif
Lourd et sombre
Toujours modéré et avec la plus grande expression
Très lent

Maurice Ravel
Tzigane, concert rhapsody for violin and orchestra (10')

— Intermission —

Camille Saint-Saëns
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, “Organ Symphony” (36')
Adagio – Allegro moderato – Poco adagio
Allegro moderato – Presto – Maestoso – Allegro


Jiří Vodička violin
Thierry Escaich organ

Alain Altinoglu conductor

Czech Philharmonic

Photo illustrating the event Czech Philharmonic • Alain Altinoglu

Rudolfinum — Dvořák Hall

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Jiří Vodička  violin

Jiří Vodička

Jiří Vodička, a concertmaster, soloist, and chamber player, is one of the most important and sought-after Czech violinists, but it would not have taken much for him to have devoted himself to Latin-American dance instead of the violin. At age 12 he finally decided to devote himself fully to playing the highest-pitched string instrument. About his dancing, he comments coyly: “I got something from doing that, possibly in the area of feel for rhythm.” At the unusually early age of 14, he was admitted to the Institute for Artistic Studies at the University of Ostrava, where he studied under the renowned pedagogue Zdeněk Gola. He graduated in 2007 with a master’s degree. Even earlier, he had attracted attention by winning many competitions including the Kocian International Violin Competition and Prague Junior Note. In 2002 he also won the prize for the best participant at violin classes led by Václav Hudeček, with whom he later gave dozens of concerts all around the Czech Republic. His success continued as an adult, for example winning first and second prizes at the world-famous competition Young Concert Artists (2008) held in Leipzig and New York.

A father of five, he is the owner of the Wassermann Media production company, which he founded during the Coronavirus pandemic. In the 2023/2024 season, he has entered his ninth season as the concertmaster of the Czech Philharmonic. He has made solo appearances not only with Czech orchestras like the Prague Philharmonia or the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, but also with the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, the New Philharmonic Orchestra of Westphalia, and the Wuhan Philharmonic Orchestra.

His professional activities are of greater breadth, however. In 2014, he recorded his debut solo album “Violino Solo” on the Supraphon label, and crossover fans can hear him on his worldwide Vivaldianno tour. He recently appeared at Prague Castle with Tomáš Kačo on the occasion of the state award presentation ceremony, he was formerly a member of the Smetana Trio (two more Supraphon CDs). He has performed chamber music with the outstanding Czech pianists Martin Kasík, Ivo Kahánek, Ivan Klánský, David Mareček, and Miroslav Sekera. Many of the concerts of the “Czech Paganini”, as Vodička is sometimes called because of his extraordinary technical skill, have been recorded by Czech Television, Czech Radio, or the German broadcasting company ARD. Besides all of that he teaches at the University of Ostrava.

The instrument he plays, a 1767 Italian violin made by Joseph Gagliano, came into his possession by what he calls “good old-fashioned patronage”. He received the violin for long-term use from the Czech Philharmonic’s former chief conductor Jiří Bělohlávek.

Thierry Escaich   organ

Thierry Escaich

Composer, organist and improviser Thierry Escaich is a unique figure in contemporary music and one of the most important French composers of his generation. The three elements of Escaich’s artistry are inseparable, allowing him to express himself as a performer, creator and collaborator in a wide range of settings.

Escaich composes in many genres and forms and his catalogue numbers over 100 works which, with their lyrical, rich harmonies and rhythmic energy, have attracted a wide audience. They are usually performed by leading orchestras in Europe and North America and by renowned musicians. Escaich has been Composer-in-Residence with the Orchestre National de Lyon, Orchestre National de Lille and the Paris Chamber Orchestra and his music has been honoured by four “Victoires de la Musique” awards. Escaich continues to teach composition and improvisation at the Paris Conservatoire, where he himself studied and obtained eight “premiers prix”. In 2013 received the honour of being appointed to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris; in 2018 he took the prestigious role of Featured Composer at the Radio France Présences Festival in Paris.

Thierry Escaich’s career as a composer is closely linked to his career as an organist, which has led him to be one of the ambassadors of the great French school of improvisation in the wake of Maurice Duruflé, whom he succeeded as organist of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris. He appears in recitals internationally, combining repertoire pieces with his own compositions and improvisations. His passion for cinema has led him to perform “cine-concerts”, improvised accompaniments on both the organ and piano for silent films such as Phantom of the Opera and Metropolis.

Major upcoming highlights include the world premiere of Escaich’s new opera Shirine by Opera de Lyon in May 2022, postponed from May 2020. Escaich also returns regularly to Dresden Philharmonie where he is Organist in Residence for the 2021/2022 season. Elsewhere, Escaich performs with the Czech Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Taiwan Philharmonic and Orchestre National de Lyon, and performs widely in recital with appearances at Dresdner Philharmonie, Mariinsky Concert Hall, Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, Moscow, Auditorium de Lyon and Toulouse les Orgues.

Alain Altinoglu  conductor

Alain Altinoglu

Although the professional life of Alain Altinoglu today is not very different from that of his famed conducting colleagues, he took a truly unique path to the most prestigious concert halls and famed opera houses. He grew up in a poor suburb of Paris in a family with Armenian roots; his father was a professor of mathematics, and his mother was a pianist. He is said to have learned to read music before he knew the alphabet. He began playing the violin at age five, but he soon switched to piano, which he eventually studied, graduating from the Paris Conservatoire. However, it was the orchestral sound that the piano lacked that stayed with him: he listened to recordings of orchestral compositions and he gobbled up scores that had been collected by his grandfather. At age 20, he even had fun transcribing them for piano. This went hand-in-hand with his fascination with conducting: he enjoyed watching conductors and having discussions with them. He taught himself on his path to a conducting career, but he needed the opportunity to show what he could do.

That opportunity came by chance when at age 18 he was working as a repetiteur at Paris’s Opéra Bastille. At one of the rehearsals, it was necessary for him to stand in for the conductor Denis Russell Davies. The rehearsal went wonderfully, and the young repetiteur received great encouragement from the orchestra to pursue a conducting career. He still had a long way to go to join world’s elite conductors, and that is a part of his conducting philosophy: “To achieve the best result, you need maturity, and you need lots of time in your life. You have to be able to read between the lines. You are never finished; you have to work every day and try to understand why something did not go the way you wanted.” He sees the conductor as an intermediary between the orchestra and the listener, and he tries to convey the composer’s intentions to listeners while also presenting his own opinion.

At present he is employed as chief conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra and makes many guest appearances with orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Cleveland Orchestra. He shows his enthusiasm for opera as music director of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, where his current projects include the entire Ring des Nibelungen. He is often seen at other opera houses from New York’s Metropolitan Opera to London’s Covent Garden. He teaches conducting at the Paris Conservatoire, and since July 2023 he has also been the artistic director of the International Festival in Colmar. He appears with his wife, mezzo-soprano Nora Gubitch, as a pianist in recitals, and they have made many recordings of the art song repertoire in which the husband-and-wife duo specialises.

His first live performance with the Czech Philharmonic came in 2022. At the rehearsals for a programme of music by Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Camille Saint-Saëns, he focused mainly on creating the authentic orchestral sound for the repertoire. As he put it: “I wanted to teach the orchestra to speak French.”


Claude Debussy
Pelléas et Mélisande, suite from the opera

In 1892 the Flemish dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck wrote his most famous work, Pelléas et Mélisande. Ten years later, he created a libretto from the play, which Claude Debussy recast into a five-act opera, the only opera he ever completed, which was premiered on 30 April 1902 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. The story is based on the myth of Tristan and Iseult—two young people are hopelessly in love with each other, but an older husband stands in the way of their happiness. It is only in death that their love can find fulfilment. Debussy was fascinated by the drama’s fairytale atmosphere and mysterious language in the spirit of symbolism. The premiere was not a great success, but over the years the opera was produced all over Europe and the USA. Today, Pelléas et Mélisande is one of the most frequently performed French operas of the early 20th century.

Altinoglu used the preludes preceding the individual acts and the interludes between scenes with interconnected musical motifs to create a concert suite that follows the course of the action from the gloomy beginning to the death of Mélisande at opera’s the conclusion. Altinoglu first performed the suite on 20 September 2017 at his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic.

Orchestral suites were created in the 19th and 20th centuries in order to popularise lengthy operas and ballets on the concert stage. This was also the goal of Altinoglu, who has conducted the opera at several important opera houses. In an interview for the server of the French music publisher Durand-Salabert-Eschig, he reported that he had plenty of original material: “Claude Debussy had to compose the orchestral interludes in Pelléas et Mélisande very quickly... Shortly before the premiere it was found that the original music did not allow enough time for the numerous scene changes. Nearly 150 bars of new music had to be added.” He went on to say: “These newly composed sections connect magically to each other and preserve the harmonic structure that is typical of Debussy.”

Maurice Ravel
Tzigane, concert rhapsody for violin and orchestra

While on tour in England in 1922, the great French composer Maurice Ravel met the 29-year-old Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi, the niece of the legendary violinist Joseph Joachim. At a private concert, she performed his Sonata for Violin and Cello, then at the composer’s request she played gypsy melodies until the early morning hours. Two years later, Ravel composed a virtuosic rhapsody for her titled Tzigane (Gypsy). The version played at the work’s premiere was for violin solo and piano or luthéal (a mechanism invented in 1919, which is attached to the piano and gives it a timbre similar to that of the cimbalom). The final revisions were made just days before the premiere in London in April 1924. That same year, Ravel orchestrated the work, and d’Arányi also premiered that version in November 1924 in Paris with the Colonne Orchestra. The two versions let violin soloists shine with technique and brilliance and are very popular with the public, and Jelly d’Arányi performed them both regularly throughout her long, stellar career. Tzigane is a reflection of the popularity of exoticism at the time; oriental and gypsy motifs were fashionable and in demand in Ravel’s day. The work does not quote any authentic Romany songs, but it uses their traditional melodic progressions, forms, and rhythms. Basically, Tzigane is a “Hungarian Rhapsody” in the spirit of Liszt, but more modern and rhythmical.

Camille Saint-Saëns
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, “Organ Symphony”

London and Liszt are the link to the last work on the programme. At age 50, Camille Saint-Saëns received a commission from the London Philharmonic Society for a large-scale symphony, and from the beginning he conceived the work as a tribute to his great friend and role model Franz Liszt. For this reason, to the usual orchestral instrumentation he added two pianos (or one piano four-hands) and organ, both being instruments typical of Liszt. He also quotes the plainchant melody of the Dies irae sequence, just as Liszt did in his Totentanz for piano and orchestra. There are also many Lisztian harmonic progressions and instrumental procedures in the treatment of musical themes.

“I put everything I had into this work. [...] I shall never be able to repeat what I have achieved here,” declared Camille Saint-Saëns after finishing his Third Symphony in C minor, Op. 78, which has come to be known as the “Organ Symphony” thanks to its magnificent use of the organ as part of the orchestra. The composer led the premiere on 19 May 1886 at London’s St. James Hall (demolished in 1905), and in addition, on the first half of the concert he played the solo part in his Fourth Piano Concerto in C minor. Franz Liszt died in July 1886, and Saint-Saëns gave the symphony its definitive dedication to his memory. He led the Paris premiere on 9 January 1887.

The idea of adding an organ part to a secular orchestral work for the concert hall was relatively unusual, although it was again Franz Liszt who had added organ to the sound of the orchestra much earlier in his symphonic poem The Battle of the Huns (1856/1857), proving that the combination is effective. Camille Saint-Saëns was a superb organist, and Franz Liszt even called him the “greatest organist in the world”. Liszt already witnessed Saint-Saëns’s skill when at just age 20 he became the organist at La Madeleine, one of Paris’s largest churches, where he remained for 20 years.

The Third Symphony is a showcase of thematic sophistication. Each individual section brings a new theme, but the previous themes return, skilfully transformed and yet recognisable. The first movement has a slow introduction followed by an Allegro moderato with the main theme in the strings based on the Gregorian plainchant melody Dies irae. The restless theme unwinds, passing through major and minor keys, then finally giving way to a calmer secondary theme. In the middle section both themes appear at the same time as part of the sonata development. After this fast section, there is a calming of the accompanying cello and bass pizzicatos, leading to the concluding part of the first movement. The theme, played first by the strings and organ and later by the woodwinds, is probably the best known melody of the whole work. The second movement opens with an energetic melody for the strings, joined by the piano with rapid arpeggios and scales, then finally the low-pitched instruments play a new theme anticipating the finale, which arrives with massive organ chords. Piano is supported by the strings, and the Dies irae motif is heard. The composition assumes the form of a majestic procession with organ, brass, and percussion. After a needed passage of respite, the tempestuous polyphonic ending arrives.

The symphony got a favourable reception from the beginning and earned its composer great success. “My dear composer of a famous symphony”, wrote Saint-Saëns’s friend and pupil Gabriel Fauré, “you cannot imagine what pleasure I had [at the second performance on 16 January 1887] last Sunday! I had the score, and I did not miss a single note of the symphony, which shall long outlive us both, even if we were to combine our life spans!” The symphony went over magnificently at a performance in May 1915 in San Francisco on the occasion of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition with 3,782 listeners in the hall. By then 80 years of age, Saint-Saëns did not conduct the performance, but he was in attendance and received a tempestuous standing ovation. Current French historiography places Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony alongside the Symphonie fantatique by Hector Berlioz and the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Olivier Messiaen in the trefoil of the country’s great symphonies.

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