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The centrepiece of this exciting evening is the Glagolitic Mass, a late masterpiece by Leoš Janáček. The programme opens with Agnus Dei for choir without orchestral accompaniment by Martin Smolka. The season artist in the residence Yuja Wang will present herself with Piano Concerto No. 1 by Rachmaninoff.
Agnus Dei, for two choirs a cappella (Czech première) (10')
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1 (27')
— Intermission —
Glagolitic Mass, a cantata for soloists, choir, orchestra and organ (40')
Yuja Wang piano
Evelina Dobračeva soprano
Lucie Hilscherová alto
Aleš Briscein tenor
Boris Prýgl bass
Daniela Valtová Kosinová organ
Prague Philharmonic Choir
Lukáš Vasilek choirmaster
Semyon Bychkov conductor
Pianist Yuja Wang is celebrated for her charismatic artistry, emotional honesty and captivating stage presence. She has performed with the world’s most venerated conductors, musicians and ensembles, and is renowned not only for her virtuosity, but her spontaneous and lively performances, famously telling the New York Times. “I firmly believe every program should have its own life, and be a representation of how I feel at the moment”. This skill and charisma was recently demonstrated in her performance of Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 2 at Carnegie Hall’s Opening Night Gala in October 2021, following its historic 572 days of closure.
Yuja was born into a musical family in Beijing. After childhood piano studies in China, she received advanced training in Canada and at the Curtis Institute of Music under Gary Graffman. Her international breakthrough came in 2007, when she replaced Martha Argerich as soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Two years later, she signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon, and has since established her place among the world’s leading artists, with a succession of critically acclaimed performances and recordings. She was named Musical America’s Artist of the Year in 2017, and in 2021 received an Opus Klassik Award for her world-premiere recording of John Adams’ Must the Devil Have all the Good Tunes? with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel.
As a chamber musician, Yuja has developed long lasting partnerships with several leading artists, notably violinist Leonidas Kavakos, with whom she has recorded the complete Brahms violin sonatas and will be performing duo recitals in America in the Autumn. In 2022, Yuja embarks on a highly-anticipated international recital tour, which sees her perform in world-class venues across North America, Europe and Asia, astounding audiences once more with her flair, technical ability and exceptional artistry in a wide-ranging programme to include Bach, Beethoven and Schoenberg.
Dramatic soprano Evelina Dobračeva began her musical career studying accordion, conducting and teaching in her hometown Syzran, Russia. She graduated with a diploma before relocating to Germany, where she began singing under the tuition of Norma Sharp, Snezana Nena Brzakovic and Julia Varady at the Hanns Eisler Music College Berlin. She claimed the highest level of scholarship from the German Republic and was a prize winner at the Würzburg Mozart Competition in 2006.
She performed at the Bayerische Staatsoper (Khovanshina), Cincinnati Opera (Tosca), Bolshoi Theatre (Pique Dame) and Theater St Gallen (Onegin and Fidelio). In concert she has recently sung Erwartung with the Capella Cracoviensis, the War Requiem with the LPO conducted by Vladimir Jurovsky, at Musikverein Vienna; Carnegie Hall and with the Spanish Radio, Verdi Requiem with the Scottish Orchestra, Mozarteum Salzburg, The Bells with Santa Cecilia Orchestra and Shostakovich 14 with Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.
The Czech mezzo-soprano Lucie Hilscherová makes guest appearances at the National Theatre in Prague, the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre in Ostrava, the J. K. Tyl Theatre in Pilsen, the Silesian Theatre in Opava, the State Theatre in Košice, and the Mannheim National Theatre. She has also appeared as Háta in The Bartered Bride in Tokyo (2010, Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, Suntory Hall, conductor Leoš Svárovský) and London (2011, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Barbican Hall, conductor Jiří Bělohlávek).
She is in demand for concert performances of the lieder and oratorio repertoire, and she also enjoys interpreting the works of contemporary composers. She has collaborated with important orchestras and conductors, appearing at such festivals as Musikfest Stuttgart, Beethovenfest Bonn, Grafenegg Musik-Sommer, Prague Spring, the Easter Festival of Sacred Music in Brno, Smetana’s Litomyšl, the St. Wenceslas Music Festival, and the Peter Dvorský International Music Festival in Jaroměřice.
Aleš Briscein studied clarinet, saxophone and opera singing at the Prague Conservatory. He has participated in prestigious festivals (Edinburgh International Festival or Prague Spring) and collaborated with outstanding orchestras and conductors, including Christoph von Dohnányi, Valery Gergiev, Sir John Eliot Gardiner or Tomáš Netopil.
Recent highlights include Der fliegende Holländer in Prague, War and Peace in Geneva, Makropulos Affair at Salzburg Festival, Dalibor and Die Königskinder in Frankfurt, Die tote Stadt in Berlin and Dresden, From the House of the Dead in Munich, Wozzeck in Vienna, Jenůfa in Bologna, Così fan tutte and Mazeppa in Berlin, Lohengrin in Erl and Two Widows in Angers and Nantes. His concert repertoire includes, among others, Mahler’s 8th symphony, Beethoven's 9th symphony and Missa solemnis, Dvořák’s Stabat mater, as well as Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, or Stravinsky’s Les Noces.
Bass-baritone Boris Prýgl ranks among the most talented Czech young singers. He successfully went through the Young Artists program of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, where he has assumed the roles of Morales in Carmen, Ping in Turandot, the prince Ottokar in Der Freischütz, the Hunter in Rusalka, etc. His artistic commitments in the 2021/2022 season include the roles of Guglielmo in Così fan tutte at the National Theatre in Prague and Don Giovanni at the Slovak National Theatre in Bratislava, a concert with Pretty Yende at the Smetana Hall in Prague, Dvořák's Rusalka (Gamekeeper) with the Czech Philharmonic under the baton of Semyon Bychkov, an advent recital in Prague, and others.
Boris Prýgl is a laureate of several singing competitions and the absolute winner of the 2015 Antonín Dvořák Singing Competition in Karlovy Vary. In July 2017, he was a finalist of Belvedere and Plácido Domingo’s Operalia. In September 2019, he was granted the award of the then Director of the Vienna State Opera Dominique Meyer at the Stella Maris Vocal Competition. He graduated from the Academy of Music in Bratislava and gained his first stage experience at the Slovak National Theatre in Bratislava.
Daniela Valtová Kosinová is a graduate of the Pardubice Conservatoire and of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. She won third prize and the title of laureate at the International Organ Competition in Brno in 2002. She is the principal organist of the Prague Symphony Orchestra. She gives concerts all around Europe. In the Czech Republic she is a guest at leading music festivals (Prague Spring, Smetana’s Litomyšl, Janáček May Festival etc.), and she collaborates with important soloists and ensembles.
She has performed the organ solos in Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass many times with the Prague Symphony Orchestra, in 2015 with the Czech Philharmonic and Jiří Bělohlávek at Vienna’s Musikverein, in 2018 with the Flemish Symphony Orchestra on a tour of Belgium, and this year with the Czech Philharmonic in Prague and on a European tour (Vienna, Hamburg, London). With the mezzo-soprano Jarmila Kosinová and the actor Jan Potměšil she created the concert programme Music Between the Words, which has been presented successfully all over the Czech Republic.
She also composes, and her works have been played at many concerts in this country and abroad. In 2010 she issued the jazz album Meeting Point featuring her own music.
The Prague Philharmonic Choir is the most important and oldest professional mixed choir in the Czech Republic. During its long history, there has been a succession of the most important Czech choirmasters at its helm; since 2007, the chief choirmaster has been Lukáš Vasilek, and the second choirmaster is currently Lukáš Kozubík.
The Prague Philharmonic Choir performs mainly the oratorio and cantata repertoire in collaboration with the world most famous orchestras (the Berliner Philharmoniker, Czech Philharmonic, the Israel Philharmonic, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Dresden or Wiener Symphoniker, among others) led by such illustrious conductors as Sir Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta, Fabio Luisi, Semyon Bychkov, Jiří Bělohlávek, and Jakub Hrůša. It also performs in opera as an ensemble-in-residence at the opera festival in Bregenz, Austria.
The choir is realising several projects of its own. Since 2011 it has been presenting an independent series of choral concerts in Prague, with its programming focused mainly on challenging, lesser-known works of the choral repertoire. Music education for young people is an integral part of the choir’s activities, with a Choral Academy for vocal students and a series of educational concerts for younger children.
Lukáš Vasilek studied conducting and musicology. Since 2007 he has been the chief choirmaster of the Prague Philharmonic Choir. Most of his artistic activity with the choir involves rehearsing and performing a cappella repertoire along with preparing the choir to perform in large-scale cantata, oratorio, and opera projects in collaboration with world-famous conductors and orchestras (Berlin Philharmonic, Czech Philharmonic, Israel Philharmonic, Saint Petersburg Philharmonic etc.).
Besides his work with the Prague Philharmonic Choir, he also engages in other performing activities mainly in cooperation with the Martinů Voices, which he founded in 2010. He is credited as a conductor or choirmaster on a large number of Prague Philharmonic Choir recordings made for important international labels (Decca Classics, Supraphon). In recent years, he has been devoting himself systematically to recording the choral music of Bohuslav Martinů. His recordings have won exceptional acclaim abroad, earning honours including awards from the prestigious journals Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, and Diapason.
Celebrating both his fifth season as Chief Conductor and Music Director of the Czech Philharmonic and his 70th birthday, Semyon Bychkov will celebrate his birthday with three concerts in November pairing Beethoven’s Fifth with Shostakovich’s Fifth. It is a season which opens in Prague with the official concert to mark the Czech Republic’s Presidency of the EU and continues with concert performances of Dvořák’s Rusalka as part of the Dvořákova Prague International Music Festival. Later in the season, Bychkov will conduct Rusalka at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
Bychkov's tenure at the Czech Philharmonic was initiated in 2018 with concerts in Prague, London, New York and Washington marking the 100th anniversary of Czechoslovak independence. With the culmination of The Tchaikovsky Project in 2019, Bychkov and the Orchestra turned their focus to Mahler. In 2022, Pentatone has already released two discs in the ongoing complete symphonic cycle – Mahler’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies.
Bychkov's repertoire spans four centuries. The unique combination of innate musicality and rigorous Russian pedagogy ensure that his performances are highly anticipated. In addition to being a guest with the major orchestras and opera houses across Europe and the US, Bychkov holds honorary titles with the BBC Symphony Orchestra – with whom he appears annually at the BBC Proms – and the Royal Academy of Music from whom he recently received an Honorary Doctorate. In 2015, he was named "Conductor of the Year’ by the International Opera Awards.
Bychkov began recording for Philips in 1989 and released discs with the Berlin Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio, Royal Concertgebouw, Philharmonia Orchestra, London Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris. Subsequently a series of benchmark recordings with WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne included a complete cycle of Brahms Symphonies, together with works by Strauss, Mahler, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Verdi, Glanert and Höller. His 1992 recording of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was BBC’s Radio 3’s Building a Library recommended recording (2020); Wagner’s Lohengrin was BBC Music Magazine’s Record of the Year (2010); and Schmidt’s Symphony No. 2 with the Vienna Philharmonic was BBC Music Magazine’s Record of the Month (2018).
In common with the Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov has one foot firmly in the culture of the East and the other in the West. Born in St Petersburg in 1952, he emigrated to the United States in 1975 and has lived in Europe since the mid-1980's. Singled out for an extraordinarily privileged musical education from the age of 5, Bychkov studied piano before winning his place at the Glinka Choir School where, aged 13, he received his first lesson in conducting. He was 17 when he was accepted at the Leningrad Conservatory to study with the legendary Ilya Musin and, within three years had won the influential Rachmaninov Conducting Competition. Denied the prize of conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic, Bychkov left the former Soviet Union in 1975. He returned in 1989 as Principal Guest Conductor of the St Petersburg Philharmonic and, the same year, was named Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris. In 1997, Bychkov was appointed Chief Conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne, and in 1998, Chief Conductor of the Dresden Semperoper.
In the grey period of “Normalisation” during the 1980s, the concerts of the ensemble Agon were a revelation. For isolated Czech listeners, that extraordinary ensemble opened up a window through which it was possible to hear compositions of the avant-garde from around the world. Three composers were behind the ensemble’s inception: Miroslav Pudlák, Petr Kofroň, and Martin Smolka. The latter is mainly associated by most of the Czech music loving public with the opera Nagano, which he composed on commission for the National Theatre in Prague, and for which he won the Alfréd Radok Award in 2004. However, Smolka’s music is heard more often abroad, and his compositions are commissioned by Europe’s most renowned ensembles and festivals.
This is also the case with Agnus Dei, which was commissioned by the radio choir in Stuttgart, which premiered the work on 14 July 2012. Martin Smolka conceived his Agnus Dei for two mixed choirs as a little Requiem for his father, the musicologist and composer Jaroslav Smolka (1933–2011). The author himself tells us about the composition’s sources of inspiration:
“What were the guideposts of my childhood? Bartók’s Mikrokosmos. Martinů’s Songs on Two Pages. At the piano, our father taught us all about music and accompanied our singing. His massive fingers were not completely agile, but all the more passionate was his love for unusually harmonic combinations and for intense, majestic operatic singing. That passion always wins out for a moment when we sing through the collection of Martinů songs and reach ‘Dievča umiralo’ (The Girl Was Dying). The children take a break, and papa sings until the window panes start vibrating: ‘...she still called out: In the hereafter, whose will you be, young fellows?’ I was always surprised at how energetic and gay the girl is while she is dying.
Everyone in Prague’s musical community knew Jaroslav Smolka. Music history at the Academy of Performing Arts, musical books and dictionaries, producing gramophone records, reviews; he was everywhere and could not be overlooked. Wherever he went, dates, key signatures, opus number, themes of compositions, contexts, and anecdotes just poured out of his head. When he departed for the hereafter ten years ago, I spontaneously began setting the Agnus Dei from the Requiem to music. And something from those guideposts from childhood has stayed with me. From Bartók there are the narrow canons, the friction of seconds, and the simultaneous sounding of major and minor. From Martinů there are quotes of unusual harmonic combinations along with the tune about dying. Incidentally, that melody is in the ‘Podhale mode’, which has an augmented or Lydian fourth degree, but also a lowered seventh degree. It could be said to mirror the 8th through the 14th tones of the overtone series, so it truly has its roots in nature.
‘Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world, grant them eternal rest. May light eternal shine upon them, amen.’ In the Latin text, the word ‘eternal’ is even present in two synonyms: ‘aeternam’ and ‘sempiternam’.”
Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff lived at the turn of an epoch. He was born in 1873 to an aristocratic family in imperial Russia. Right after the October Revolution, in December 1917 he and his whole family emigrated by way of Copenhagen and Stockholm to the USA, and he never returned to Russia. He spent the interwar period in Europe, mainly in France and later in Switzerland in a villa beside Lake Lucerne. Before the Second World War, he fled back to the USA.
The music he composed is also influenced by the arrival of the new epoch. He studied at the Moscow Conservatoire, where he was directly influenced by an encounter with Tchaikovsky, with whom he shared the same opinion about the importance of a strong melody capable of lasting for ages. All his life, Rachmaninoff devoted himself to his three talents, working as a piano virtuoso, conductor, and composer. He was admired by his contemporaries mainly as a performer. He gave countless concert tours, so he did not have much time left for composing. His compositions were often dismissed as old-fashioned and were seen as antithetical to the music of his two radical contemporaries: Schoenberg and Stravinsky.
Rachmaninoff composed his opus one, the Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor, in 1891 while still a student at the conservatoire at the threshold of adulthood. He dedicated the work to his cousin Alexandr Siloti, also an excellent pianist (his teachers included F. Liszt), thanks to whom he began studying in Moscow at the age of twelve under the renowned teacher Nikolai Sergeyevich Zverev. The composer premiered the first movement of his own concerto on 17 March 1892, and conducting the student orchestra was Vasily Safonov, director of the Moscow Conservatoire at the time.
Rachmaninoff often revised his compositions, and in the case of his opus one, the revisions were more radical than usual. In the autumn of 1917 he thoroughly rewrote the concerto, among other things composing a new central tutti passage in the first movement, rewriting the first half of the lengthy piano cadenza, altering the stylisation of the piano part, and retouching the orchestration. The final version is more colourful and more pianistically grateful, and therefore it has also found a place in the concert repertoire. He began making revisions in September and finished them on 10 November. Meanwhile, shots were fired from the Aurora, the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg had fallen, and the Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia. Rachmaninoff left Russia forever, so the new version of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor was first heard on 2 January in New York under the baton of Modest Alschuler and with the composer at the piano.
Among great creative figures, Leoš Janáček is remarkable in that the older he got, the more “youthful”, original, and modern the music that he wrote became. This was perhaps because he had lost everything. Released by the cruelty of fate from his ties and concerns for his parents and his children, he was truly able to find himself. He cast aside conventions and tried to get to the heart of things.
Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass is one of the most powerful sacred compositions in music history. The 72-year-old composer wrote the music to the text in Old Church Slavonic in 1926 at his favourite spa, Luhačovice. “The rain in Luhačovice is pouring, just pouring. I look out of the window at the gloomy mountain Komoň. The clouds come rolling in, and the wind tears and scatters them. […] The darkness becomes denser and denser. Now I look out into the black of night; lightning slashes into the darkness.” That is how Janáček described the atmosphere that August, when he began writing his Glagolitic Mass. The decision was made quickly. Although he had taken an interest in the Old Church Slavonic text of the Mass a few years beforehand and had made a few sketches, the music that he ultimately began writing in Luhačovice had nothing in common with those sketches. For Janáček, starting the new work was quite emotional. His ideas had to mature, but once creative fervour had taken hold, he composed quickly. He sketched out the entire Mass in just three weeks! By October 1926, he had finished it. He made more quite substantial changes after the premiere, which took place on 5 December 1927 in Brno. Janáček was able to make cuts. He is never verbose; he is precise.
For example, in the movement “Věruju” (Credo) he shortened the orchestral interlude that contained a very powerful passage inducing the atmosphere before the choir begins singing about Christ’s crucifixion. Janáček originally scored this harsh passage for three (!) sets of tympani, and he combined them with expressive music for brass and organ. In a letter to Kamila Stösslová he wrote: “…so I’m doing a bit of a depiction of the legend that when Christ was stretched out on the cross, the heavens were torn. So I wrote rumbling and lightning…” His wife Zdena supposedly told him: “Leoš, that’s impossible; you’re cursing at the Lord God there.” And a while later Janáček said: “So I’ve gotten rid of the tympani there…”
Although the Glagolitic Mass is a musical setting of a liturgical text, the work is not confessional in character. To Ludvík Kundera’s review, in which he called the composer an “old man” and a “firm believer”, Janáček’s reply was “No old man, no believer, you youngster”. This is often quoted, but we must take it with a grain of salt. Janáček was unquestionably a spiritual person. He was raised in the environment of the church at the Benedictine Monastery in Old Brno. However, he was not a practicing Catholic. We know only that he brought his children up in faith and prayer. He apparently felt distanced from the Catholic Church, so he was attracted to the idea of writing a Mass, but to the Old Church Slavonic text.