Interview with Marek Štilec

21. září 2010

This young conductor was first given the opportunity to participate in a concert with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra in the Rudolfinum in April of this year. That he acquitted himself entirely professionally in a demanding programme of contemporary works is reflected in his forthcoming engagement with the Radio Orchestra in the run-up to Christmas (21. 12.).

We are more likely to associate you with music of the 20th and 21st centuries. How often do you conduct works by the early Czech masters?

It's true to say that the majority of my repertoire is taken up by high-quality contemporary music, in particular, by composers affiliated in the ensemble Quattro (Sylvie Bodorová, Otmar Mácha, Luboš Fišer and Zdeněk Lukáš). I try to perform their works as often as I can, both with the Quattro Chamber Orchestra, and during my guest appearances with symphony orchestras. But I am very fond of music by the old Czech masters as well, especially the works appearing on the programme for the concert on 21 December. The generation of teachers such as Jakub Jan Ryba might be said to have paved the way for national musicality, without which we wouldn't have later seen the rise of composers like Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák. And Jan Václav Voříšek bears witness to the sad necessity of musical emigration. Moreover, both Ryba and Voříšek were writing in revolutionary times, when the "old orders" were breaking down, and the echoes of the Great French Revolution are tangible in both works.

How would you describe your collaboration with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra and how much time did you spend on preparations for your pre-Christmas concert?

Primarily, I see this collaboration as a major commitment. I'm delighted that, after the concert in April, I was given another rare chance to work with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra again. And this in the era of Chief Conductor Vladimír Válek, whose many years spent shaping the orchestra in both musical and conceptual terms led it to a series of not only domestic but, above all, foreign triumphs. I'd like to add at this point that the chance to participate in his rehearsals with SOČR and the advice he has given me have truly been a most valuable mine of information. It would otherwise be very difficult to acquire this sort of experience. I always endeavour to prepare myself down to the last detail. Apart from naturally studying the score, I seek out all sorts of different sources. Biographies, letters, diary entries and so on. In the case of Jakub Jan Ryba, it was also helpful that I am well acquainted with the region where he lived and worked (the area around Rožmitál, Nepomuk, Mníšek pod Brdy), which I know from numerous cycling trips during the summer holidays.

Ryba's mass requires a podium filled with musicians and singers. Does this large cast lay excessive psychological demands on the conductor?

I suppose like every conductor, I love large groups of performers and major forms. So, of course, I'm really looking forward to it. Ryba's Czech Christmas Mass is naturally demanding for every conductor for a number of reasons. This work is a phenomenon in itself - a national symbol of Christmas. But it couldn't merely be described as some kind of naive Christmas pastoral! I'd like to bring in other associations. The atmosphere of the work was also influenced by Napoleon's military campaign. In 1796, when the mass "Hey, Master!" was written, the Czech Lands lay under threat of invasion from Napoleon's vast army. The country was gripped by a great fear of war. It was only after Austria's September victory at Würzburg and Schwarzenfeld that the French retreated back to the Rhine, and it was clear that they would never reach Bohemia. It was roughly during this period that Ryba wrote his Czech Christmas Mass. Ryba's Mass is thus not only a religious, but also a panhuman, celebration of life.

What led you to take up the baton and which names were fundamental for you during your conducting studies?

I came to conducting as a violinist at the Conservatoire. The Conservatoire is a fertile ground which is constantly breeding chamber ensembles of all shapes and sizes. Some last for decades, others don't survive the first rehearsal. And I really wanted to start up one myself. A quartet seemed too small in my mind, and so I said to myself: it's got to be a string orchestra. And since I had been flirting with the idea of conducting for some time, I ended up swapping the violin for the baton. By that time I had already started going to Leoš Svárovský for private tuition; he is now my teacher at Prague's Academy of Music. There I'm studying conducting on its own. I think our department is full of great names and I'll always remember meeting every one of them. I also found the courses headed by Vladimir Kiradiev and the legendary Jorma Panula very inspirational.

What is the most demanding aspect of the conducting profession and where does its chief function lie, in your opinion?

Every line of work has its specific characteristics. For all musicians, and thus also for conductors, the travelling can be strenuous, particularly if you have to drive a car for long distances. But this is a logical and integral part of our profession. However, I also get to see so many wonderful places. The principal role of the conductor in my opinion is responsibility, above all else. Towards the musicians, to ensure that they have the ideal conditions for their work. Towards the composer, so that the orchestra and conductor fulfil his idea of the piece, and towards the audience, so they don't leave the concert with the feeling that they would have been better off staying at home.

You began as a violinist; you studied at the Prague Conservatoire with Dana Vlachová. How often do you play your violin these days?

I devote time to the violin constantly. I don't perform in public, but I use it for conducting purposes. Particularly in Baroque and Classical music, for example, the bowings are extremely important for the phrasing. So, in these pieces, I often work out the bowings and fingerings myself. A knowledge of string instruments is essential for a conductor working with an orchestra. The strings are the largest orchestral section and familiarity with all details and what they are capable of can often save you time. So, everything my teacher, Mrs Vlachová, taught me, I use practically every day, and I'm very grateful to her for that.

What are you focusing your energies on at the moment? (apart from this concert)

On 12 January I have a prestigious concert with the Quattro orchestra as part of the Prague Symphony Orchestra subscription series, and we have a number of other concerts as well. We'll also be performing for the first time at the Janáček May festival in Ostrava. I, myself, will be making a guest appearance with the Pardubice Chamber Philharmonic and the Hradec Králové Philharmonic. Naturally, my chief undertaking is to complete my conducting studies at the Academy of Music. And before that happens, in March 2010, I'll be leaving to embark upon what is, for me, an extremely important period of study - under someone I greatly respect, both as a musician and a person, Michael Tilson Thomas, together with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

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