The Czech Philharmonic with Semyon Bychkov and Yuja Wang illuminate and inspire in a moment of crisis and suffering

“To remain silent today is to betray our conscience and our values, and ultimately what defines the nobility of human nature.”Semyon Bychkov

Czech Philharmonic/Semyon Bychkov & Yuja Wang
A tribute to the people of Ukraine
A Yuja Wang in scintillating form in Rachmaninov’s first piano concerto with the sumptuously free strings of this historic orchestra.Semyon Bychkov’s extraordinarily fluid magic wand creating a continuous stream of sounds from an orchestra of the grandest of traditions.It was from the very opening romantic sounds of Rachmaninov that there was a flexibility of shape and style of operatic proportions with a richness of sound and colour that I have only ever heard from Rachmaninov’s favourite orchestra in Philadelphia.Yuja Wang’s absolute authority from the opening octaves was breathtaking as was the sumptuous way she could draw the audience in to eavesdrop on such ravishing musings or take us by storm with her scintillating energy in the last movement.The great first movement cadenza she built up the rich sonority from a mere whisper in such a masterly way that one would not have thought the amount of sound and power possible from the elegant lady in the flaming red dress .Piano playing of the Golden age bequeathed to her by her great mentor Gary Graffman.

Throughout the concert Semyon Bychkov’s authority artistry and above all humanity and integrity illuminated a sold out Barbican and we left uplifted and resolved as never before.

A short speech and the Ukrainian National Anthem was a very dignified way to open such a poignant occasion.’A music that is an identification with the land that brought us into this world.We hear this music now at a time when people are suffering in a way that is hard for us to imagine,somehow the notes sound differently’

It was in the spring of 1902 that the Czech Philharmonic first took up residency in London,the first to do so ,and today more than a hundred years (and several visits) later, they come with their chief conductor and musical director since 2018,Semyon Bychkov bringing a message of solidarity and peace in light of the tragedy that is unfolding in the past few weeks in the Ukraine.

Sergei Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 1
1. Vivace – Moderato
2. Andante
3. Allegro vivace
Bedřich Smetana Má vlast (My Fatherland)
1. Vyšehrad (The High Castle)
2. Vltava (The Moldau)
3. Šárka
4. Z českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields)
5. Tábor
6. Blaník

Sergei Rachmaninov, newly graduated from Moscow Conservatory in 1892 premiered the first movement of this work but was never quite satisfied with it and it was in 1917 after writing his Second and Third Piano Concertos,that he began the revision whilst blocking out the Revolutionary turmoil all around him.It was the last major work he composed before leaving Russia for ever .Rachmaninov’s changes were quite extensive especially in the last movement but it still balances the extraordinary virtuosity and a romantic lyricism that was characteristic of Rachmaninov one of the great virtuosi of his day.These two sides can be heard, for example, in the first movement, where, after a brass statement combined with cascading piano double octaves, the orchestra launches into the broadly lyrical main theme.

Bedřich Smetana (2 March 1824 – 12 May 1884 )was a German speaking Czech composer who pioneered the development of a musical style that became closely identified with his people’s aspirations to a cultural and political “revival.” He has been regarded in his homeland as the father of Czech music.He is best known outside his homeland for his opera The Bartered Bride and for the symphonic cycle Mà vlast (“My Fatherland”), which portrays the history, legends and landscape of the composer’s native Bohemia .In 1861, it was announced that a Provisional Theatre would be built in Prague, as a home for Czech opera and Smetana saw this as an opportunity to write and stage opera that would reflect Czech national character.At this stage in his career, Smetana’s command of Czech was poor as his generation of Czechs was educated in German,and he had difficulty expressing himself in what was supposedly his native tongue.To overcome these linguistic deficiencies he studied Czech grammar, and made a point of writing and speaking in Czech every day.By the end of 1874, Smetana had become completely deaf but, freed from his theatre duties and the related controversies, he began a period of sustained composition that continued for almost the rest of his life. His contributions to Czech music were increasingly recognised and honoured, but a mental collapse early in 1884 led to his incarceration in an asylum and subsequent death already from 1879, Smetana had written to friends revealing fears of the onset of madness and by the winter of 1882–83 he was experiencing depression, insomnia, and hallucinations, together with giddiness, cramp and a temporary loss of speech.His family, unable to nurse him any longer, removed him to the Kateřinky Lunatic Asylum in Prague, where he died on 12 May 1884.The hospital registered the cause of death as senile dementia.However, Smetana’s family believed that his physical and mental decline was due to syphilis.

The State Opera in Prague

The State Opera is part of the National Theatre of the Czech Republic, founded by Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic in 1992. It was originally opened in 1888 as the New German Theatre and from 1949 to 1989 it was known as the Smetana Theatre . More recently it was renamed the Prague State Opera And is home to approximately 300 performances a year. It regularly plays Smetana’s nine operas in the original Czech.I was present at a performance of ‘The Kiss’ where the whole audience was participating totally and applauded wildly when the ‘Kiss’ actually occurred much as in England with the Pantomime or in Italy and Vienna with Operetta.A very stirring and moving experience indeed.

‘My Fatherland ‘ contains the famous symphonic poem “Vltava”,also popularly known by its German name “Die Moldau” and is a cornerstone of Czech repertoire. Though inspired by the Lisztian ideal of the symphonic poem Smetana only slowly came to the idea of a cycle of ‘poems’ extolling his homeland.The first ‘poem’ – ‘Vyšehrad’ – was completed in November 1874 and premiered on 14 March 1875. Portraying the mythical birthplace of Prague, the legendary and historical fortress which stands on a rock east of the river Vltava, the piece begins with a solo harp playing the ‘Vyšehrad motif’. As Smetana said, ‘a poet sings of the events on Vyšehrad, of glory and splendour, of tournaments and battles, and of eventual decline and ruin. The poem ends on an elegiac note.’Janáček described the reaction to Smetana’s second poem ‘Vltava’ when in 1875 he first heard it: “At the end a tumultuous roar fused into the name Smetana!” ‘Vltava’ is the most popular of Ma vlást’s movements. It depicts the course of the mighty Czech river (in German: ‘Moldau’) that flows through much of Bohemia, from its source as two rivulets, past a woodland hunt, peasants’ wedding, and mermaids in moonlight, to St. John’s Rapids. The ‘river’ theme blazes forth in major mode, setting up a victorious return to Vyšehrad, before fading away. The Vltava eventually joins the Elbe. The third movement depicts the legend of Šárka who avenged herself on men for an earlier infidelity. We hear the approach of Ctirad and his men, the cry of anguish Šárka feigned to lure Ctirad’s men to her maidens’ trap, love music, carousal, slumber and then a horn, Šárka’s signal to start the massacre. ‘From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields’, denotes Smetana’s love of the Bohemian countryside. He basks in generous melody though making prominent use of fugue.By 1878, Smetana had decided to expand his original concept of three to six movements, ending with a pair inspired by the Hussite period in Czech history. Both make use of ‘Ye who are God’s Warriors’, a hymn that supposedly struck fear in the enemy. ‘Tábor’, named after the Hussite stronghold, depicts the Hussites’ faith and resolve. ‘Blaník’ refers to the hill under which Czech warriors are thought to sleep until rallied to save the nation under St. Wenceslaus. The cycle ends with the ‘Vyšehrad motif’.Ma vlást premiered on 5 November 1882,by which time Smetena was completely deaf and it was immediately an important national emblem that has gained worldwide appeal.

Semyon Bychkov’s tenure as Chief Conductor and Music Director of 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 the following year, Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic turned their focus to Mahler.With a repertoire that spans four centuries, Bychkov’s highly anticipated performances are a unique combination of innate musicality and rigorous Russian pedagogy. He holds honorary titles with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Academy of Music and is a frequent guest with all the major international orchestras. International Opera Awards named him ‘Conductor of the Year’ in 2015 and this year he will receive an Honorary Doctorate from the Royal Academy of Music.

On 1 March, Semyon Bychkov and members of the Czech Philharmonic took part in a benefit concert for Ukraine.Thirty thousand people gathered together at Prague’s Wenceslas Square and more tuned in in solidarity, donating over 180 million in CZK. “I came to this sacred place in Prague to honor the memory of 1968.
Today, 54 years later history repeats itself once again. This time in Ukraine.
I want to say to Vladimir Putin who doesn’t deserve to be addressed as Mr. Putin:
Look at the images of Ukrainians you are killing.
Look in the eyes of Russian soldiers you sent to kill and be killed.
Look in the eyes of their mothers, fathers, wives and children.
You will see tears, pain and hatred.
The world has cried too many tears.
The world has felt too much pain.
The world has seen enough of hatred.
You must stop destroying Ukraine.
You must stop destroying Russia.
Your dream of having a place in History is already achieved.
You will be remembered for crimes against humanity.”

It is with a heavy heart that Semyon Bychkov has had to withdraw from his concerts this summer with the Russian Youth Orchestra. Here he explains why:”The Russian invasion of Ukraine brought unthinkable devastation and human suffering. There can be no winners whatever the outcome of this unjust and artificially created war.Under these circumstances I must withdraw from conducting the Russian Youth Orchestra in Moscow next June. This is a painful decision as I was looking forward with enormous joy to making music with the exceptionally gifted young Russian artists.Yet doing so under the present circumstances would be an unconscionable act of acquiescence.I want the spirit of this decision to be unmistakably clear: it is in no way directed at the orchestra or its public. The emotional suffering of ordinary Russian people at this time, the feeling of shame and economic losses they experience are real. So is a sense of helplessness in face of repression inflicted by the regime. Those individuals who dare to oppose this war put their own life in danger. They need us who are free to take a stand and say: ‘The guns must fall silent, so that we can celebrate life over death’.”

Silence in the face of evil becomes its accomplice and ends up becoming its equal. Russian aggression in Ukraine brings us to what my generation hoped would never happen again: War.Russia still mourns some 27 million citizens who perished at the hands of the Nazis in World War II, when Hitler delivered what he promised years earlier in Mein Kampf. How ironic that, while celebrating its victory over Nazi Germany in 1945, Russia chooses to forget its non-aggression pact with Hitler. Signed in 1939, the pact made Russia one of the co-authors of World War II; becoming one of the winners when the war ended in 1945 doesn’t acquit those who made it possible. The post-war Nüremberg Trials of leading Nazis brought atonement in German society for crimes committed against humanity, which continues to this day.What about Russia’s atonement for the genuine genocide of tens of millions of citizens killed by its own communist regime in the two decades preceding war with Germany? That was a physical genocide. And, what about the mental genocide that continued for decades after the war? The methods of the murderers and their hunger to destroy anything and anyone who refuses to obey have passed to their successors. Today they rule the country again. Born after the war, they have no concern and no interest in understanding what war brings. After all it won’t be their children who are sent to the front lines Their knowledge of history extends only to abstract geopolitical ideas of the instruments needed to acquire and keep power, whatever the cost to human life and, whatever destruction it brings. One has to be demented to refer to the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, which is how Putin defined it, rather than rejoice at the fact that it happened without bloodshed and brought an end to the kidnapping of many nations in addition to Russia itself.If only the end of Russia being held hostage by its ruling elite weren’t temporary! One of many signs and symbols that the country has returned to pre-Perestroika times is the dissolution of the Memorial Society founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov in 1989. Its mission was to research every single victim of repression and keep the memory of the dead alive. Through the dissolution of the Memorial on 29 December 2021 victims of repression were killed once again. This too is a form of genocide. Not in the Russian-occupied Donbas of Ukraine as Putin claims.The Russian regime wants to obliterate the memory of its victims. If we forget them we will betray them. They may no longer care about being betrayed, but we should if we don’t wish to suffer their fate. History always repeats itself if and when it is forgotten.I was born in St. Petersburg in 1952 and lived there for 22 years before emigrating to the United States. My paternal grandfather went to war and never came back. My maternal grandfather’s family members were exterminated by the Nazis in Odessa. My father fought in the war and was twice wounded. My mother survived the 900-day siege in Leningrad.Russian culture, its language, its noble traditions are in my blood. They always have been and always will be. Having gifted the world with extraordinary artistic creations and scientific discoveries realized by its sons and daughters, it pains me to see how Russia is unable or maybe unwilling to escape its dark past.Russians are capable of endless sacrifice and endurance, and truly know the meaning of friendship, generosity and compassion, some of the best qualities present in human nature. Yet those qualities are systematically destroyed by the regime that governs their life on all levels, unable to escape it for lack of mechanisms that allow for change without resorting to violence.I don’t know if Russia will discover how to live in peace with itself and the world in my lifetime. What I do know is an ancient Russian saying: ‘Words are silver, and silence is gold’. Yes. but there are moments in life when silence in the face of evil becomes its accomplice and ends up becoming its equal.

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.

The 126 year-old Czech Philharmonic gave its first concert – an all Dvořák programme conducted by the composer himself – in the famed Rudolfinum Hall on 4 January 1896. Acknowledged for its definitive interpretations of Czech composers, the Orchestra is recognised for its special relationship to the music of Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Mahler, who conducted the world première of his Symphony No 7 with the Orchestra in 1908. Throughout the Czech Philharmonic’s history, two features have remained at its core: its championing of Czech composers and its belief in music’s power to change lives. As early as the 1920s, Václav Talich (Chief Conductor 1919–1941) pioneered concerts for workers, young people and voluntary organisations.
The philosophy continues today and is equally vibrant. A comprehensive education strategy engages with more than 400 schools bringing all ages to the Rudolfinum. An inspirational music and song programme led by singer Ida Kelarová for the extensive Romany communities within the Czech Republic and Slovakia has helped many socially excluded families to find a voice. In addition to an international education exchange with the Royal Academy of Music in London, over lockdown the Orchestra gave seven benefit concerts which were live streamed internationally in 4K by Czech Philharmonic’s producing house Czech Phil Media, raising funds for hospitals, charities, and healthcare professionals. An early champion of the music of Martinů and Janáček, the works of Czech composers – both established and new – remain the lifeblood of the Orchestra. Initiated by Semyon Bychkov, nine Czech composers have been commissioned to write works for the Orchestra alongside five international composers – Detlev Glanert, Julian Anderson, Thomas Larcher, Bryce Dessner and Thierry Escaich. The Orchestra additionally holds an annual young composers’ competition launched in 2014 by Jiří Bělohlávek (Chief Conductor 2012–2017).

To remain silent today is to betray our conscience and our values, and ultimately what defines the nobility of human nature.”

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