By Zedeck Siew
Tell us about yourself. What inspired you to pick up the baton?
The sound of the large symphonic orchestra: it was a love affair from the very first sight and sound. This was from when I sang as a six-year-old boy in a children’s choir in the Prague National Theatre. I was absolutely fascinated and decided immediately that music had to be my future.
You grew up in Prague, and served appointments with the Prague Symphony and Czech Philharmonic in the years following the Velvet Revolution. What was it like, living under the administration of playwright Vaclav Havel?
After years of living a double life — one ‘official’, for the outside world; the other a real one, within a private, very small circle of family and close friends — the fact of sudden freedom was a breathtaking experience. We have been enjoying it ever since.
In 1994, you founded the Prague Philharmonia, a well-toured and well-recorded ensemble. Any particularly memorable stories on the tour circuit?
The whole miracle of the existence of the Prague Philharmonia is one of my dearest and most precious musical achievements. Although, since 2005, I am honorary music director — and thus do not have any active position with the orchestra — I still return to guest-conduct, and it is always a great joy.
You are now the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Chief Conductor, and will collaborate with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra for this year’s Kuala Lumpur BBC Proms. What about this series of performances are you looking forward to the most?
I am looking forward to meeting again the audiences of Kuala Lumpur. I have previously guest-conducted the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, and I remember the houses’ vivid and joyous reactions to the music. Of course, I am proud to present one of London’s greatest orchestras to Malaysian listeners in a rich variety of repertoire.
Have you ever tried ‘belacan’?
I have never tried it, but as I know it is made from shrimps — and I like shrimps very much! — I’m looking forward to trying it.
Who are some of your heroes, and why?
My heroes, or those I most admire, are people who are excellent in their profession but retain the ability to be human beings, with compassion for others.
What’s immediately after Kuala Lumpur for you?
A flight home, and a week of collaboration with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.
Tell us a really, really bad conductor joke.
I know only excellent conductor’s jokes! This is one:
A blind rabbit encounters a blind snake. They try to recognise each other. The snake starts to feel the rabbit and says: “You have nice warm fur, long ears, whiskers and four legs. Are you a rabbit?”
“Yes, I am a rabbit!” says the rabbit, who now starts to explore his counterpart: “You do not have any hands, you do not have any ears, you are slimy. Are you a conductor?”
What is irony to you?
Very often, insecure people use irony to solve a difficult situation. I do not like to use it.
A really horrible Internet personality test determines that you are a 1970s rock ensemble. Who would you be, and why?
None of them!
The BBC Proms, an annual season of concerts held in Central London, is the world’s largest classical music festival. Jiri Belohlavek, along with Kevin Field and Matthias Bamert, conduct the BCC Symphony Orchestra and the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in the KL BBC Proms 2, a Malaysian offshoot. Tue 31, Oct- Sat 4, Nov 2006, at Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS. Tickets from RM25.
The above interview first appeared in the Weekend Mail’s Sat 28 & Sun 29, Oct 2006 edition.
First Published: 30.10.2006 on Kakiseni