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Czech Philharmonic • San Sebastián


At its second appearance in San Sebastián, the leading Czech orchestra will play an all-Czech programme. Dvořák’s energetic Carnival Overture will precede Bohuslav Martinů’s original Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra played by the Labèque sisters and Leoš Janáček’s magnificent Glagolitic Mass with Czech soloists.

Programme

Antonín Dvořák
Carnival Overture, Op. 92

Bohuslav Martinů
Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, H 292

Leoš Janáček
Glagolitic Mass, cantata for soloists, choir, orchestra and organ

Performers

Katia and Marielle Labèque pianos

Evelina Dobračeva soprano
Lucie Hilscherová alto
Aleš Briscein tenor
Jan Martiník bass

Edinburgh Festival Chorus
Aidan Oliver choirmaster

Semyon Bychkov conductor

Czech Philharmonic

 

Photo illustrating the event  Czech Philharmonic • San Sebastián

Quincena Musical de San Sebastián — Kursaal

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Performers

Katia & Marielle Labèque   pianos

Katia & Marielle Labèque

From the Basque region of France, then almost untouched by classical music, to the greatest concert halls in the world – this is the story of the Labèque sisters with a career spanning more than 50 years, who have been described as “the best piano duo in front of an audience today” (New York Times). But the shared story of the sisters, who have had a lifelong and intense relationship both professionally and personally, is much longer. The elder Katia first began playing piano under the tutelage of her mother, a pianist and piano teacher, and two years younger Marielle soon followed suit. In 1968, they entered the Paris Conservatory, but still as two soloists – the idea of forming a piano duo did not arise until after they had graduated from the conservatory, and so they then enrolled in a chamber music class there. They still remember how, while rehearsing Visions de l’Amen, they were suddenly interrupted by Olivier Messiaen, who happened to be passing by their class and wondered who was playing his piece. He was so impressed that he helped them record the work, which was not only their first recording experience but also an important invitation to the world of contemporary composers – after Messiaen, they worked with György Ligeti, Pierre Boulez and Luciano Berio. Their career breakthrough came with their original arrangement of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which became one of the first gold records of classical music.

The Labèque sisters have performed in famous concert halls from the Musikverein in Vienna to Carnegie Hall in New York, have been guests at major festivals (BBC Proms, Salzburg, Tanglewood) and have appeared with the most celebrated orchestras in the world (Berlin Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, La Scala Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, etc.). “We don’t have the huge repertoire of a solo pianist or a violinist, but we have all the more freedom to create our own music and our own projects,” say the sisters, who collaborate with Baroque music ensembles (such as The English Baroque Soloists with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Il Giardino Armonico with Giovanni Antonini), but they also venture into the field of “non-artificial” (natural) music (Katia even played in a rock band).

The problem of the limited repertoire for piano duo is also solved by addressing contemporary composers. In addition to the above mentioned, in 2015 they gave the world premiere of Philip Glass’s Double Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel. Two years later they premiered Bryce Dessner’s Concerto for Two Pianos expressly written for them, and recorded it for the album “El Chan”. The Labèques also performed this piece in Prague’s Rudolfinum – although due to the pandemic (2021) without an audience, only in a streamed version. However, this was not the Labèque sisters’ first meeting with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (whose chief conductor Semyon Bychkov is Marielle Labèque’s husband). In April 2017, the Dvořák Hall witnessed their performance of Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos, and a year later they made their solo debut there.

Evelina Dobračeva  soprano

Evelina Dobračeva

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.

Lucie Hilscherová  mezzo-soprano

Lucie Hilscherová

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  tenor

Aleš Briscein

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.

Jan Martiník  bass

Jan Martiník

Vocal beauty combined with brilliant technique and comic talent have made Jan Martiník, a graduate of the Janáček Conservatoire and of the University of Ostrava, into one of the leading singers of the younger generation. Despite having just recently celebrated his 30th birthday, he already has several competition successes to his credit (victories at the Antonín Dvořák International Competition in Karlovy Vary and at BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, laureate of the Yelena Obraztsova International Singing Competition in Moscow, finalist at Placido Domingo’s singing competition Operalia). He has made guest appearances at Prague’s National Theatre and has held engagements first at the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre in Ostrava, then at Berlin’s Komische Oper and the Staatsoper Unter den Linden.

He has appeared in concert with such famed orchestras as the Czech Philharmonic (for example in the Glagolitic Mass on a European tour and on a floating stage on the Vltava), the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Staatskapelle Dresden, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the King’s Consort, and Collegium 1704. He is especially acclaimed in the art song repertoire for the purity of his interpretations of Schubert’s Winterreise and of Dvořák’s Biblical Songs.

Orfeón Donostiarra  choir

José Antonio Sainz Alfaro  choirmaster

Semyon Bychkov  conductor

Semyon Bychkov

In the 2023/2024 season, Semyon Bychkov’s programmes centred on Dvořák’s last three symphonies, the concertos for piano, violin and cello, and three overtures: In Nature’s Realm, Carnival Overture, and Othello. In addition to conducting at Prague’s Rudolfinum, Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic took the all Dvořák programmes to Korea and across Japan with three concerts at Tokyo’s famed Suntory Hall. Later, in spring, an extensive European tour took the programmes to Spain, Austria, Germany, Belgium, and France and, at the end of year, the Year of Czech Music 2024 will culminate with three concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York. As well as featuring Dvořák’s concertos for piano, violin and cello, the programmes will include three poems from Smetana’s Má vlast, Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass for which the orchestra will be joined by the Prague Philharmonic Choir. 

Bychkov’s inaugural season with the Czech Philharmonic was celebrated with an international tour that took the orchestra from performances at home in Prague to concerts in London, New York, and Washington. The following year saw the completion of The Tchaikovsky Project – the release of a 7-CD box set devoted to Tchaikovsky’s symphonic repertoire – and a series of international residencies. In his first season with the Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov also instigated the commissioning of 14 new works which have subsequently been premiered by the Czech Philharmonic and performed by orchestras across Europe and in the United States.

As well as the focus on Dvořák’s music, Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic are exploring the symphonies of Mahler as part of PENTATONE’s ongoing complete Mahler cycle. The first symphonies in the cycle – Symphony No. 4 and Symphony No. 5 were released in 2022, followed in 2023 by Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”. Last season’s highlights included performances of Mahler’s Third Symphony in Prague and Baden-Baden, and during the 2024/2025 season, Bychkov will conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 with the orchestra in Prague, New York, and Toronto, and Symphony No. 8 in Prague.

While especially recognised for his interpretations of the core repertoire, Bychkov has built strong and lasting relationships with many extraordinary contemporary composers including Luciano Berio, Henri Dutilleux, and Maurizio Kagel. More recent collaborations include those with Julian Anderson, Bryce Dessner, Detlev Glanert, Thierry Escaich, and Thomas Larcher whose works he has premiered with the Czech Philharmonic, as well as with the Concertgebouworkest, the Vienna, Berlin, New York and Munich Philharmonic Orchestras, Cleveland Orchestra, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

In common with the Czech Philharmonic, Bychkov has one foot firmly in the culture of the East and one in the West. Born in St Petersburg in 1952, Bychkov emigrated to the United States in 1975 and has lived in Europe since the mid-1980s. Singled out at the age of five for an extraordinarily privileged musical education, 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 won the influential Rachmaninoff Conducting Competition. Bychkov left the former Soviet Union when he was denied the prize of conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic.

By the time Bychkov returned to St Petersburg in 1989 as the Philharmonic’s Principal Guest Conductor, he had enjoyed success in the US as Music Director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra and the Buffalo Philharmonic. His international career, which began in France with Opéra de Lyon and at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, took off with a series of high-profile cancellations which resulted in invitations to conduct the New York and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras and the Concertgebouworkest. In 1989, he was named Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris; in 1997, Chief Conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne; and in 1998, Chief Conductor of the Dresden Semperoper.

Bychkov’s symphonic and operatic repertoire is wide-ranging. He conducts in all the major opera houses including La Scala, Opéra national de Paris, Dresden Semperoper, Wiener Staatsoper, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and Teatro Real. While Principal Guest Conductor of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, his productions of Janáček’s Jenůfa, Schubert’s Fierrabras, Puccini’s La bohème, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov each won the prestigious Premio Abbiati. In Vienna, he has conducted new productions of Strauss’ Daphne, Wagner’s Lohengrin and Parsifal, and Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, as well as revivals of Strauss’ Elektra and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; while in London, he made his operatic debut with a new production of Strauss’ Elektra, and subsequently conducted new productions of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten, and Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Recent productions include Wagner’s Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival, Strauss’ Elektra and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Madrid. He returned to Bayreuth to conduct a new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in summer 2024.

Bychkov’s combination of innate musicality and rigorous Russian pedagogy has ensured that his performances are highly anticipated. In the UK, the warmth of his relationships is reflected in honorary titles at the Royal Academy of Music and the BBC Symphony Orchestra – with whom he appears annually at the BBC Proms. In Europe, he tours with the Concertgebouworkest and Munich Philharmonic, as well as being a guest of the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Orchestre National de France, and Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia; in the US, he can be heard with the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Los Angeles Symphony, Philadelphia, and Cleveland Orchestras.

Bychkov has recorded extensively for Philips with the Berlin Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio, Concertgebouworkest, Philharmonia, London Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris. His 13‑year collaboration (1997–2010) with WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne produced a series of benchmark recordings that included works by Strauss (Elektra, Daphne, Ein Heldenleben, Metamorphosen, Alpensinfonie, Till Eulenspiegel), Mahler (Symphonies No. 3, Das Lied von der Erde), Shostakovich (Symphony Nos. 4, 7, 8, 10, 11), Rachmaninoff (The Bells, Symphonic Dances, Symphony No. 2), Verdi (Requiem), a complete cycle of Brahms Symphonies, and works by Detlev Glanert and York Höller. His 1992 recording of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin with the Orchestre de Paris was recommended by BBC’s Radio 3’s Building a Library (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). Of The Tchaikovsky Project released in 2019, BBC Music Magazine wrote, “The most beautiful orchestra playing imaginable can be heard on Semyon Bychkov’s 2017 recording with the Czech Philharmonic, in which Decca’s state-of-the art recording captures every detail.”

In 2015, Semyon Bychkov was named Conductor of the Year by the International Opera Awards. He received an Honorary Doctorate from the Royal Academy of Music in July 2022 and the award for Conductor of the Year from Musical America in October 2022.

Bychkov was one of the first musicians to express his position on the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, since when he has spoken in support of Ukraine in Prague’s Wenceslas Square; on the radio and television in the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Austria, the UK, and the USA; written By Invitation for The Economist; and appeared as a guest on BBC World’s HARDtalk.

Compositions

Antonín Dvořák
Carnival Overture, Op. 92

“Whatever we have in Czech history that is truly great has grown from the bottom up!” This sentence by the famous Czech author Jan Neruda tells us a great deal about the history of the Czech nation and its great figures. It certainly applies unreservedly to Antonín Dvořák, whose growing artistry took him from a little village to the world’s greatest metropolises.

When Neruda wrote these words in 1884, he was 50 years old. And what was Antonín Dvořák doing in 1891 at age 50? He was a famous, sought-after composer, an artist whose popularity had long since crossed the borders of Austria-Hungary and spread all over Europe. It was in the year of his 50th birthday that he was offered the directorship of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. He considered the matter very carefully, consulting with many of the people who were close to him. For example, he wrote to his friend Alois Göbl in June 1891: “I’m supposed to go to America for two years! […] Should I accept the offer? Or not? Send me word.” Dvořák had never been very fond of celebrations, so it is no surprise that in early September he refused to take part in celebrations in Prague for his 50th birthday because he was spending time with his family at his beloved summer home in Vysoká, where he went to rest and to compose. Four days after his birthday (12 September 1891), he finished orchestrating Carnival Overture, Op. 92, the second work in a cycle of three concert overtures that are programmatic in character. We do not have a concrete programme from the composer, but he clearly realised something here that no one would have expected from him in the realm of symphonic music. Two years earlier, he had already gone down this path in chamber music with his Poetic Tone Pictures, Op. 85, thirteen pieces for solo piano, about which he jokingly commented: “I’m not just an absolute musician, but also a poet.” Dvořák had originally conceived his triptych of concert overtures depicting three aspects of human life as a single whole with the title “Nature, Life, and Love”. All three overtures are also carefully motivically interconnected. Ultimately, however, the composer told his publisher Simrock that his overtures “each can also be played separately”, and he gave them the opus numbers and titles In Nature’s Realm, Op. 91, Carnival Overture, Op. 92, and Othello, Op. 93. The first performance of all three overtures took place on 28 April 1892 at the Rudolfinum in Prague at the composer’s farewell concert before his departure for America, with Dvořák himself conducting the orchestra of the National Theatre. Dvořák also conducted their second performance, this time across the ocean on 21 October 1892 at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Bohuslav Martinů
Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra H 292

Martinů was commissioned to composed the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra by the husband and wife Pierre Luboschutz and Genia Nemenoff, who together constituted a piano duo. Martinů met them in 1942 in the USA at the summer orchestral festival in Tanglewood, where he taught composition. He wrote the concerto during the first two months of 1943, and he dedicated it to the couple. In the programme for the world premiere on 5 November 1943 in Philadelphia (with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugen Ormandy and the dedicatees as the soloists), Martinů wrote: “In the Concerto, [...] I have used the pianos for the first time in the purely ʻsoloʼ sense, with the orchestra as accompaniment. The form is free; it leans rather toward the Concerto grosso. It demands virtuosity, brilliant piano technique, and the timbre of the same two instruments calls forth new colours and new sonorities.” In this way, he distanced himself from earlier concertante compositions in which he had also used two pianos in solo episodes: the Concerto grosso, H 263 (1937) and the Tre ricercari, H 267 (1938). The Belgian piano duo of Janine Reding-Piette and Henry Piette (also a married couple) enjoyed tremendous success with this Concerto from the mid-1950s onwards. They were “electrified” by the work, and they asked Martinů to compose a second concerto for two pianos and orchestra for them. Although the composer is said to have agreed, the work ultimately was never written because of his deteriorating health. After one performance, a critic wrote enthusiastically: “This concerto will be like the Tour de France; it’s going on a Tour du monde.” It seems that the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra is the “ideal type” not only for the concerto grosso form, as the composer commented, but also for piano duos consisting of close relatives, which is again the case at this evening’s performance.

Leoš Janáček
Glagolitic Mass, a cantata for soloists, choir, orchestra and organ

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.

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