Česky English

Czech Philharmonic and the people around it

(From the book by František Sláma From Herálec to Shangri-La.  English translation: Karolina Vočadlo Hughes)

 

When I arrived at the Philharmonic, there were still people in the orchestra who might be described as "twenty-fivers", namely those who had been in the orchestra for the 25th anniversary of the Philharmonic's independence in 1926.

 

 

 

 

Josef Štika was an excellent violinist, colleague, teller of jokes and painter. I saw his graphic art and it took my breath away. He was skinny, he had sunken cheeks, a little moustache under his nose and an elongated English head. Even in his manners and elegant dress, he was every inch a gentleman. He shared his desk with Ludvík Němeček, they were the best of buddies. In contrast, Mr Němeček was chubbier, with red cheeks, greying hair and a high forehead. He was born in Belgrade, where he spent his childhood; I think his father played in the opera orchestra. Mr Němeček was a generous person, a fine companion and affable bon vivant, just like Mr Štika. Both played wonderfully and were well liked and respected by us young'uns. My admiration for them continued even after we had spent many years playing table tennis together by the Philharmonic's reception desk, a game for which Mr Němeček cultivated a true passion.

Tomáš Hála was the uncle of pianist and harpsichordist Josef Hála, with whom I often performed later on. On the occasion of a landmark birthday, he was appointed a professor, like bassoonist Karel Bidlo, which suited him perfectly. He was always dignity and precision personified, and if I characterised Mr Štika as stylish, Tomáš Hála symbolised old-school elegance: he visited first-class tailors and wore spats on his polished shoes. Nevertheless, while he gave the impression of the embodiment of serenity, during rehearsal, thanks to his zealous sense of detail, he was often the cause of commotion in the upper strings. Generally the debate was about the bowings - the dissenters were never able to agree upon anything and were oblivious to everyone in all the uproar. Conductors were often completely baffled by this.

 

 

Miloš Vlašimský had the appearance of an artist from the 19th century, just like Mr Votruba from the National Theatre: a black broad-brimmed hat, white scarf and long white hair down to his shoulders. He spoke literary Czech and didn't compromise himself much with the younger generation. Like all those who were around at the time, he was fond of recounting stories about the early days of the Philharmonic and the famous people who were part of it, and he had many stories to tell. Probably his favourite theme was Molinari and his wife, the singer. She was apparently able to unnerve the irascible maestro without much ado. Of course, Mr Vlašimský also told us anecdotes about other famous names: Nikisch, Walter, Zemlinský, Furtwängler, de Sabata, Clemens Krauss, Mengelberg, Klemperer... But, in the end, he always returned to the tales of the temperamental diva and the upheavals in her marriage.

Miloslav Sádlo, from whom I inherited my first tailcoat, was the older brother of my teacher, the cellist Karel Pravoslav. But I don't think he resembled him very much at all: he had an oblong face and was considerably shorter. He sat at the first desk of the violas and was, according to an ancient custom, the orchestral spokesman. To this day I picture him taking down the register on the back of his viola and carefully looking round the orchestra to see who was missing. He also assisted the conductors in working out the rehearsal and recording schedule, he planned the orchestral holidays, sorted out complaints, kept his eye on the clock to make sure we were back from breaks on time, also to announce the end of the rehearsals etc. Apart from his contemporaries, who called him Mílo, we all called him Sir. He was very strict and, if anyone spoke out of turn during rehearsal or turned up late, he would hand out fines - these little slips of paper would be included in an envelope together with our pay check. The fine for one transgression was five crowns, which was quite a lot in those days, and people were pretty annoyed to get one. But they didn't say anything. There were those, of course, who saw it as a bit of a joke, like Honza Šimon or Tonda Kohout, who inserted a five-crown note between the hairs at the tip of their bow and held it under his nose in order to let him know that they wanted to say something and were paying in advance. This stunt was always much appreciated. But there was another favourite prank in the orchestra, targeted at string players: when they were required to write down bowings, the players would lean forwards and lift up the back legs of their chair. Their colleagues sitting behind them would deftly place an empty matchbox under the legs, and when the player sat back in his chair again, there would be a terrible cracking sound. The fine for this was much bigger, because it threw the whole orchestra, and often infuriated the conductor as well.

Despite his thankless role, Míla Sádlo was well liked and commanded genuine respect from most people. But he didn't seem to have much of a sense of humour. He was fond of a joke and he would join in whenever a group formed around the orchestra's "entertainers" during breaks. But he rarely got the punch line, usually commenting with the words: "But that's impossible! There's no way that could've happened!".

 

       

Míla Sádlo as orchestral spokesman ... and as a  drummer playing for children on St Nicholas's Day (on the far right)

  

Almost every member of the "old guard" had colourful lives which could cover the pages of novels. This was also the case of Vojtěch Časta. He studied the violin under Štěpán Suchý, but he soon took up the cello and went over to Jan Burian and, in his fifth year at the Conservatoire, took off for Ljubljana to gain some practical experience. When he came back he joined the well-known Šak Philharmonic where, unlike the Czech Philharmonic, income was secure. For this reason, about half the members of the orchestra gradually left to join Šak, and conductor Ludvík Čelanský made up for this shortage by hiring unemployed players - who were said to have played wonderfully. But then even Šak's money dried up and the CPO players were forced to come sidling back to their old workplace. Their return to the Philharmonic also signalled the arrival of Mr Časta. When I encountered him for the first time he stood tall and elegant with his head held proudly erect, his white hair flowed from beneath his black hat, but he also often went bareheaded. He dressed like Tomáš Hála and also had those spats which hardly anyone wore by then. He was very proud of his position on the sight-reading examining board: I encountered him in this role when I was auditioning as well. During rehearsal Mr Časta was a very meticulous and patient person, which predestined him for the task of preparing young cellists for their work in the orchestra, sometimes for their trial year, at other times for shorter periods, depending on the circumstances. When it was my turn to sit next to him in the cello section, my co-workers warned me that I wouldn't have an easy time of it - apparently Mr Časta was a real pedant and taskmaster. But I have to say that I never had that impression, even though I was with him for numerous rehearsals and several concerts. What I did have to keep in mind was that every novice was supposed to have a pencil and rubber with him at all times for writing in the bowings, this was almost more important than remembering to bring your cello spike. Otherwise I just kept to the job in hand and watched the conductor, so we didn't talk very much together. But I loved hearing Mr Časta telling us his stories. He knew a lot about the Philharmonic's prehistory and, when he was in a good mood, he was totally compelling. I have always regretted not jotting down at least some of his anecdotes at the time.

 

Cello section in 1950 - Vojtěch Časta on the far right (seated)

 

There are some people who, without even trying, immediately become the centre of attention. Whenever and wherever they are. Vilém Prokop Mlejnek was one such person, one of Burian's last pupils, who joined the CPO during its memorable 25th anniversary year. During the Protectorate, I was travelling home after a Prague Quartet concert at the Municipal Library - at that time trams still ran across the Old Town Square. There was hardly anyone else standing there on the platform except me and I'd placed my cello on the floor next to me. At Prašná brána a man got on looking like someone from the last century; a cross between Karel Hynek Mácha and Eduard Vojan: long white hair down to his shoulders, a dark scarf round his neck, a black broad-brimmed hat on his head and a long black flowing cloak across his shoulders. He immediately asked where I was going with my cello. He wanted to know what I was playing, what year I was in at college... Then he told me what he had been doing. He had played in a Czech Philharmonic concert at Obecní dům (during the war the orchestra's home, since the Rudolfinum was occupied by the German, today Bamberg, Philharmonic). He said he was a cellist there and that he was also fond of early music and composing and many other things besides. And that human life was unfortunately just too short for all these things. This was the first and last time that I spoke with him. We didn't cross paths in the Philharmonic because he left the orchestra straight after the war. Later on I took over from him playing the tenor viola da gamba in the ensemble Pro arte antiqua, which he had established years before together with Talich's viola player Václav Král and others. He had rare encyclopaedic knowledge and was a master of a dozen trades: he performed as a soloist on the piano, the viola da gamba, cello, lute, he wrote arrangements, he edited music and he taught. He also wrote exquisite incidental music for radio and film, and naturally also conducted the pieces as well. He was interested in the construction of instruments - his friend Dr Buchner was, after Emil Hradecký, head of the Museum of Musical Instruments on Maltézské náměstí. All over Prague people used to talk about Mlejnek's gamba and the other instruments in his collection.

 

 

Karel Šejna was a "twenty-fiver" and concertmaster of the double basses, yet, even back in 1922, he was asked to stand in as conductor on Talich's recommendation and, from then on, his services to the Philharmonic became invaluable. He was given assignments in the popular music series at Žofín and elsewhere, in 1938 he stood alongside Talich as second permanent conductor of the Czech Philharmonic and he remained in this function for twenty-four years. Even he was lured by the "golden stick" but he was so humble that he was always regarded as "one of the boys", particularly by the older generation. That's how I saw him as well; during rehearsal he probably paid too much attention to what his contemporaries Hála, Roesel, Sádlo and others might say. When he came up with a new idea, he would ask them for their opinion before putting it into practice. In this he wasn't a typical conductor. But he had great strengths: he always knew the work thoroughly and he came extremely well prepared. The orchestra could never catch him out, unlike some of his famous colleagues. He certainly never stood in front of a mirror to see whether his gestures looked spectacular enough, but he conducted with a clear beat. He had a fine sense for the music, even though, like the majority of Czechs, he was one of those conductors who didn't "twist and turn". (I have to add here that, over the years, we in fact only experienced a handful who didn't conduct with their entire body - masters of the gesture were, on the contrary, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Wolfgang Sawallisch or Igor Markevitch.)

Before rehearsal Šejna would sometimes fortify himself down at the U Svitáků pub in Valentinská street; sometimes members of the orchestra would turn up and they would swap tales. If our colleague, the violinist Zdeněk Pitter was there, he would write down some of the chief's aphorisms, which Šejna didn't object to. Pitr would later have great fun reading them out on the bus with the other musicians when the orchestra was on tour, which helped to while away the time.

In 1948 Rafael Kubelík emigrated and his successor was chosen via secret ballot. Our associate Václav Neumann was the favourite among the younger crowd. He was just beginning as a conductor, but many of us knew him as a fellow-pupil from the Conservatoire, an excellent viola player and co-founder of the Smetana Quartet. Šejna received support from the middle and older generations. When the votes were counted, Šejna was declared the outright winner. While, initially, we novices couldn't understand why he'd had so many more votes, we were later reassured on many occasions that this choice did, in fact, make a lot of sense and that Václav Talich and our "elders" knew what they were doing. Šejna was someone who played a part in the unity of the orchestra and guaranteed the continuity of its development. He was incredibly assiduous and reliable. He never deserted us. He never tried to assert himself in a leading position but was totally committed. He had been selflessly assisting the Philharmonic from as early as 1922, when it was going through hard times, he quietly served the orchestra and never asked for recognition. One might compare him to Vilém Zemánek during the early stages of the Philharmonic's history, but he viewed Zemánek's ambitions differently, in his own way. When we went off to Vienna to play at the Mahler Festival, the CPO only had Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4 in its repertoire. The Fourth was conducted by Karel Ančerl and they had to decide who was going to rehearse the Fifth, the opening number of the concert. The task was entrusted to Šejna, who thus sealed his reputation as a Mahler conductor - the proverbial trumpet solo at the start, performed by Mr Lisý, augured the huge success of the entire evening.

When I graduated from the Academy, the decision was made to give the Smetana Quartet and other graduates in the Philharmonic the chance to perform their own concert as part of the orchestral series. This concert was again assigned to Šejna. I was to play Schumann's Concerto in A minor and Šejna came up to me and said: "Could you drop by the conductor's room? I'd like to hear you play the piece so that I get an idea of your interpretation." So I went to seek him out the next day; he listened carefully, made some notes and also gave me some advice. When, driven by the typical euphoria of youth, I rushed through the last movement at breakneck speed, he asked: "May I make a suggestion? What about playing it in this tempo?" And he hummed the notes more slowly and more melodically. And he was right, of course.

 

       

 

The second double bassist during the period of the Philharmonic's gala 25th anniversary was Karel Paul. Together with Ladislav Kabeš and Stanislav Novák, he had been in the orchestra for the 1918/19 season - namely the transition from Čelanský to Talich's revolutionary approach, and a period of fundamental improvement in the standard of the orchestra. Mr Paul and his colleagues contributed much to this transition themselves: they pushed through Talich's engagement as second conductor and fully supported him; in doing so, they risked being given the sack, since the Philharmonic board and the press were ostensibly behind Čelanský. For us new-comers, Mr Paul was something of a legend whom most of us had merely read about. We had only come into contact with Stanislav Novák briefly at the Conservatoire, and with Mr Kabeš as members of the Czech Chamber Orchestra when we were rehearsing Má vlast under Talich with the National Theatre Orchestra during the Prague Spring festival. In the CPO, of course, we spent much more time with Mr Paul, and we were fortunate that, not only did he love talking about the past, but he was very good at it. He was a highly affable youngster of about eighty, slender without the hint of a stoop, he had a ruddy complexion, white hair with a parting, glittering eyes and refined, serene manners. Whenever he turned up as an extra, people would crowd round him, eager to hear something about the early days of the orchestra. The double bassist Jan Kment, one of our group, even made notes. And there was plenty to write about - Mr Paul spoke like a rhapsodist and it was no wonder that he had been elected orchestral spokesman during those distant turbulent times in the Philharmonic.

The "twenty-fivers" also included another double bass player, Antonín Pletánek. But by the time I joined the CPO, he was playing the tuba, having essentially exchanged roles with tuba-player Vojtěch Kuchynka who, at the National Theatre, later became the first Czech soloist on the double bass and an example for František Pošta - both had been pupils of professor František Černý. Every double bassist who studied his instrument during the First Republic and during the war also had compulsory tuba, so this kind of alternation was possible. Mr Pletánek was hefty, sturdy, red-cheeked, with greying hair, and he was extremely gregarious: whatever the situation, he was everywhere, and he had lots of friends. Each instance of his hollering "Boys, you'll never guess what happened to me...!", attracted an audience in seconds. He had a chat with anyone he passed by but he wasn't one for long conversations, he was always in a hurry - either on his way to work or at work itself. We had no idea that a person blessed with such unshakable energy might have health problems, and so we were dismayed when Mr Pletánek ended up in hospital during an orchestral tour of Romania. He died shortly after being transferred back to Prague. But his famous adages lived on in the Philharmonic and are probably quoted to this day.

Mr Časta and his contemporaries used to talk about another "twenty-fiver", Gustav Nesporý, who was principle flute back in those days. Whenever the talk was about discipline during the era of Talich, once incident, in particular, came to mind. Mr Nesporý was a favourite of Talich, nevertheless, there was a time when, during a rehearsal, his mind wandered and he twice missed his entry. The orchestra froze but Talich, instead of exploding, acquired an ironic expression and asked: "Mr Nesporý, shall I send a carriage for you?". Gustav Nesporý looked at him nonplussed at first, then, extracting himself from his philosophical ruminations, calmly answered: "You don't have to bother, Václav, really." And the tension evaporated.

Josef Děda was principle solo oboist in the CPO and a revolutionary phenomenon in terms of our performance tradition. He was the first to play using modern techniques and he created a beautiful rounded tone. He was tall and elegant and people often used to say that all oboists from then on dressed the way he did. I remember him from concerts I used to attend during the war; even back then his performance was the stuff of legend. I then came into contact with him at the Conservatoire. When I came back to Prague in the summer of 1945 and heard that he had been killed during an American air raid only a few months before the end of the war, I couldn't believe it. I still met up with his son after that, who was studying the cello under Karel Pravoslav Sádlo. Děda's pupils, such as Jirka Tancibudek, were a faithful image of him; the difference between their way of playing and that of the "old school" was immediately obvious to the listener.

Another legend of the Czech Philharmonic, professor Karel Bidlo, was born in 1904 and he played in the orchestra from the age of twenty-six. As a bassoonist he was far ahead of his time and was thus as important for his instrument as Josef Děda was for the oboe. People were already writing about his significance back in 1930, when the chief characteristic of the bassoon was its heavy-handedness, which made it difficult for the player to produce an effortless tone and cope with unevenness of pitch. After the war Bidlo was considered the founder of the modern Czech bassoon school; all the guest conductors knew about him. People also said he was obsessed by the bassoon, and it certainly looked as if he would never let it out of his grasp. At least, that's the impression we got in the Philharmonic. He was renowned for his humility, matter-of-factness and discipline. When he reached his sixtieth birthday, the management asked him to decide for himself how long he wanted to remain in the orchestra - in the history of the Philharmonic, only very few had been given a privilege like this. I remember very well the meeting held with him and others who were about to go into retirement. Their spokesman Ludvík Němeček appealed to him that it would be in the interests of the orchestra if he stayed. But Bidlo told them that he didn't want to work beyond retirement age and that he was really looking forward to having a good rest. And so he began his life as a pensioner along with the others. The next day, however, it became clear exactly what he deemed a "good rest". He arrived at the Rudolfinum just as punctually as he had all his life, he took out his bassoon from his locker and, while we went off to rehearse in the hall, he practised down in the tuning room. He did his quota and then went for a coffee in the canteen.

Each day there would also be a meeting of "Bidlo's retirement debating society" during the breaks. This group also included the professor's greatest friend, the daytime porter Mr Pospíšil, a pensioner from the health department. They would usually be joined by Mr Průcha, a retiree who lived in the Rudolfinum working as a boiler man, and Jaroslav Maštalíř, who went into retirement as the head of the Conservatoire archives, but he had also been a noted pianist during the First Republic, an accompanist and composer of many well known works. Which made for a unique company of individuals. The discussions always began with Bidlo going off to the reception area after his practice session, where there was a club divan for three and a table for placing coffees and other stimulants. And as the old gentlemen began to talk, a horde of CPO players would grow around them, listening reverently, and also chipping in with their comments. The debate generally started with some news item from the previous twenty-four hours, accompanied by criticism of the current situation. Then there would be a smooth shift to analogous events in the past. (What would they say today, I wonder!) When it came to around midday, and the subject moved on to music, it was always the same: the topic was supplied by whoever had just come off the concert platform after rehearsal, a guest soloist or a conductor. Comparisons were made, stories were exchanged and assessments given. Practically every guest immediately made himself known to Bidlo, and the professor, enthroned on the divan amid a host of admirers, accepted his tribute with dignity. Here and there the debate would attract comments about the current classical music scene in Prague: "Bidlo's circle" was well aware of who was playing what, where, and how (by this I don't just mean the quality of the performances, but also all the various new tricks, innovations and "surprises" in the field). They would all sit round the table drinking coffee, occasionally a glass or two of wine as well. The central character in these stories was naturally often Karel Bidlo himself; he had hundreds of anecdotes up his sleeve, and he had the narrative gift of George Bernard Shaw.

Apart from the debating society, the professor divided his time between two other leisure pursuits. One of them was his little car, which he purchased as one of the first in the orchestra to do so. But it wasn't for driving around in. Since he was such a dexterous DIY fanatic, he had it as a kind of toy; he didn't park it in the street, but in a garage he shared with Karel Ančerl, in fact. He would go there every free moment, he was always polishing something, adjusting some spare part or inventing some new device. He also studied the highway code with the same sense of detail and adhered to it conscientiously. He would then follow this code to the letter, generally on his favourite route from Prague to České Budějovice, which, given his tranquil and, in all respects, harmonic method of driving, allowed him to enjoy the passing countryside at the same time.

 

Czech Philharmonic's  hell-drivers (photograph © František Sláma)

 

His other passion, for which his extraordinary technical skills predestined him, was the repair of watches and clocks of all kinds, but his specialisation was cuckoo clocks. Bidlo was so familiar with their anatomy that he could have "operated" on them blindfold. Clocks or watches that were too fast or too slow he would repair on the spot. This was all done for free, of course, but he was visibly gratified when the hapless owner told him that his watch had gone wrong twice after visits to a professional watchmaker. Unlike many others, he liked to have an audience to witness this sorcery. He would first lay out his special watch-making instruments - on that table in reception where they sipped their coffee at other times - and then his stage-acting persona would take over. He constructed double reeds for the bassoon with the same virtuosity - he was famous for it all over Prague and he naturally had his "trade secrets". If he gave someone one of his own reeds, even if only a hand-me-down, it was considered a great honour. The work he did every day, throughout his life, kept him in excellent shape as a musician as well. He was still playing Mahler with us at the age of seventy, superbly as always; there was always something we could learn from him. I was also extremely fortunate to have been able to work with him for almost two decades in the ensemble Ars Rediviva and we worked together, for example, on recordings of The Art of Fugue and The Musical Offering. This was one of the most fascinating periods of my life, chiefly thanks to people like him.

 

            

 

Military musical education was traditionally of a very high standard and, during the First Republic, brought results to rival the Conservatoire. The wind players, especially the brass, were renowned for their accomplishments. The outstanding Philharmonic trumpeter Rudolf Lisý joined the orchestra in 1935, bringing with him extensive knowledge of military music. He immediately won over Václav Talich, chiefly with his inimitable broad tone which continued to captivate audiences long after the war. Back then, it was only on rare occasions that Talich would have anyone else play principal trumpet. Mr Lisý had a truly exceptional, natural predisposition for his instrument and his tone colour and technique were unrivalled. Right up until his retirement he also played on a different type of instrument from the others. While they used modern instruments with piston valves, Lisý remained loyal to his old C trumpet.  As a person he might have seemed quite aloof and distant, but it was he who paid us beginners an unexpected compliment at our St Nicholas (pre-Christmas) party, when the wind and strings swapped roles for a laugh. The relationships and professional commitment within the trumpet group were remarkable: back then, under the supervision of Mr Lisý, the section comprised the temperamental Jiří Horák, the rotund Pepík Stuchlý and young Vašek Junek. Lisý junior took over his father's role when he was appointed the CPO's principal trombonist.

 

 

Miroslav Štefek was brought over to the Philharmonic from the Brno theatre in 1942 by Rafael Kubelík; Štefek was twenty-six at the time. His method of playing the French horn signalled a radical change, and not only in the Philharmonic. At first glance he might have appeared as something of an unsociable loner and, with his fairly robust constitution, it certainly didn't look as if he found it easy to produce the notes - you could see the exertion in his face and his lips were pressed firmly to the mouthpiece even before he started playing. But the sound that came out was simply staggering. He amazed us with his seamless phrasing, persuasive tone colour and total assurance in all registers, particularly the high notes. Whereas before - not only in this country - the French horn was allowed to make a few gaffes during a concert without it really damaging the player's reputation, we suddenly had someone who simply wouldn't recognise the word failure. It was about twenty years before we had any sign of vacillation, on this occasion at the close of the New World Symphony. It came after hundreds of superb, confident performances and was almost imperceptible when it did happen, but Miroslav Štefek resolved the incident in the way of a typical perfectionist: he wouldn't perform this solo after that. Even so, in our opinion, he didn't have the slightest reason for feeling insecure. Whoever heard him play the solo in Brahms's Symphony No. 1 could hardly imagine hearing it being played by anyone else. After the horn came the flute, in the hands of Géza Novák - which could only be described as a trump in the best sense of the word. This alone would have guaranteed the success of the entire concert. The Scherzo trio in the Eroica was equally delightful, which was always played by horn players Štefek, Hrdina and Cír, an ideal group if ever there was one. Alexandr Cír came to us from the National Theatre. This was a man with a broad outlook and exceptional musical ability and, fortunately for the Philharmonic, he wanted to move over to fourth horn because his teeth were starting to give him trouble. Listening to him playing with Štefek was a treat for everyone. The wind and brass players in the CPO had always had a fine reputation but, what was also typical of them, was that they never stopped working on their performance. Thus any discussion with Štefek immediately turned to the problems he ostensibly had with his playing, even though there never seemed to be any in anyone else's view.

Except that few people are derailed by illness to the extent that musicians are. And, by this, I don't just mean psychological unease, but simply the fact that they need a healthy and fully functional body in order to do what they do. Or at least certain parts. When the first difficulties appear, the majority of instrumentalists try to hide their problems even from themselves and, later on, they don't make for very disciplined patients, either. And this was the case with Miroslav Štefek as well. They discovered he had serious diabetes, his teeth began to fall out - every horn player knows what this means. But he didn't give up and got through one more concert with dentures, playing superbly. Shortly afterwards, however, he had to go into hospital and, while we were on tour in Austria, we received a telegram informing us that he had died. By unhappy coincidence, this was around the time that Karel Šroubek died as well, when we were in Linz.

Although Miroslav Štefek was an excellent horn player, he never had ambitions as a soloist. He would only perform in concert on the initiative of others. But he was a favourite of all the big conducting names. They had the deepest respect for people like him: I can't think of a single case where they would have forced him to re-work his solo or insisted he play it in line with their own vision. On the contrary, it happened so many times that they stopped the orchestra after one of his solos to shout "Bravo!". And they also learned to pronounce his name properly, which often wasn't easy for them. Štefek and Bidlo generally found this reverence somewhat disconcerting. Géza Novák, on the other hand, would give a little bow along with that faint smile of his, which seemed to express the words: "Very kind of you to say so, but I know my worth."

 

    

 

Zdeněk Tylšar

When Miroslav Štefek fell ill, it seemed impossible that they would find a horn player who would come anywhere near him. But, as is the way, either destiny or the Philharmonic deity saw to it that professor František Šolc from Brno sent a quiet young man with an incredible head of curly black afro-style hair to audition for the post. Even though he was only nineteen, he held out extremely well amid the formidable competition, dumbfounding everyone sitting in the hall with his performance. One of our group who wasn't marking on this occasion, but was permitted to listen in and marvel at the sound, commented on his flawless offering with a single phrase: "He's heaven sent." With this audition began Tylšar's passage to world celebrity. His technique was staggering and he played with such a light touch that people would fondly quip: "This guy could play with his nose!" Unlike many other young musicians, however, he didn't aspire to technical acrobatics but aimed much further, even back then. As an orchestral player and as a soloist he had a remarkable musical imagination, refinement and legendary sixth sense which no amount of study with the most illustrious teachers, nor years of experience, could provide.

On the concert platform Zdeněk Tylšar was never unsure of himself, nevertheless he had one phobia which hampered the execution of his profession: a fear of flying. For a long time we thought he was just having us on, but we changed our mind when faced with the bizarrely dramatic circumstances of our first flight together during a tour to London. The trip began smoothly enough and, thanks to the cosy atmosphere in the airport buffet, we weren't even bothered that, as usual, we had to wait a fair time for the departure of our special flight. When the first call finally came, Zdeněk suddenly disappeared amidst all the commotion. We only realised this during our roll call just before take-off. We waited, they called him on the airport's PA system, but he never showed up. The plane moved off without its full quota on board and many of us quietly speculated how things would turn out - fortunately, Zdeněk didn't have to play in the first London concert. Two days went by. On the morning of the third day, Zdeněk suddenly appeared in our hotel. His entré caused a huge stir and, naturally, everyone wanted to know what had happened. We discovered that he had fled the airport and returned home, where his panic attack had subsided. He phoned the Philharmonic and they booked him a ticket for the train and ferry across the Channel: instead of an hour on the plane, he had to spend a whole day and night travelling by other means. Over time he finally had to come to terms with the idea of flying, but the tale of the London expedition has been handed down from one generation to the next.

Zdeněk Tylšar played with his friend, our alternating principal horn Rudolf Beránek, in the Chamber Harmonie and, together with colleagues Stuchlý, Kubát, Hrdina, Černý and Kettner, they formed the famous ensemble Dechovka ve fraku (Brass Band in Tails). The bass part was played wonderfully by horn player Cír, who was later succeeded by tuba player Hoza. Their music had real zest to it, full of humour, finely honed in facial expression and gesture, all testifying to the fact that they had never forgotten their early days playing in village  bands.

 

 Zdeněk Tylšar (photograph © František Sláma)

 

Another of the extraordinary talents in the Czech Philharmonic's woodwind section was the clarinetist Karel Dlouhý. He came to the CPO at the age of twenty-five, shortly before me. He was Vladimír Říha's pupil and sat next to him in the orchestra, but he played in a different way. Říha was a classical clarinetist, a Talich player from the era of the First Republic; he had a rounded, resonant tone, but without vibrato. Dlouhý created a tone with a subtle vibrato, thus the sound was more animated, he let the instrument sing out. Říha never interfered with the way he played, on the contrary, he frequently let it be known that Karel Dlouhý was his best pupil. The numerous solos Dlouhý performed were always the subject of conversation for years afterwards. The lengthy solo in Šárka literally had the audience out of their seats and we in the orchestra could see that Karel was in a trance when he played it: he seemed to be floating and the rapture just radiated from him. His staccatos in The Bartered Bride were like beads being poured out of a jar, a sound he achieved in any kind of tempo. During rehearsal it was really something to witness the efforts of the Karel Bidlo-Jiří Mihule-Karel Dlouhý trio, sometimes joined by the second clarinet or oboe. Whether this was Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet or the New World Symphony, they always got together to check their intonation, sound etc.; they never allowed themselves to fall into self-assured routine, but spent their whole lives improving their performance. And the conductors never tried to impose their ideas on them; on the contrary. Karel and the others in this threesome were continually showered with compliments.

Karel had another obsession - constructing kites. He began with flying boxes, and then got lured by increasingly larger and more interesting monsters, until he ended up making gigantic models of eagles. Whenever we went on tour, he took his latest model with him, and when we had a free day, he set out with a crowd of admirers to look for the most suitable spot to fly his kite. A section of Philharmonic players gradually became infected with this "kite-mania" and subsequent years saw the formation of a whole group of constructers who willingly acknowledged Karel as the highest authority. Wherever we were, at home or in Japan, our kite runners attracted a lot of attention and, once back at the hotel, they would delight in describing how the local "kite-men" had abandoned their own serially produced creatures in order to gather round and marvel at Karel's supermonsters.

During the war, Karel and another member of the CPO, cellist Václav Kovařík, were sent by the German authorities to work in a theatre in the Austrian town of Steyr. They had quite an adventurous time of it down there and, whenever they described their experiences, they evidently embroidered the story a little bit more with every telling. Even by the time we'd become familiar with their account practically word for word, there was always someone who would come out with the familiar: "Tell us what happened that time, boys." And a little crowd would form around them and they were off; it was like grandpa telling tales of sorcery and magic to his wide-eyed grandchildren. You could talk about anything with Karel, sport, politics, or just nothing in particular. He had his own views and they never changed much, in fact, occasionally he could get pretty wound up. Nevertheless, his take on the world always contained that proverbial grain of truth and, moreover, he was such a level-headed chap that none of us ever wanted deliberately to unnerve him.

 

Karel Dlouhý (on the right) during rehearsal

 

One of the most popular members of the orchestra from our generation, Šorejs's pupil František Pošta, joined the Philharmonic at the age of twenty, just as the war was beginning. He took pride in two things: that he had been born in Lány (summer residence of Czechoslovak and, subsequently, Czech Presidents), and that he played the double bass. And justifiably so - he was one of the first to elevate the double bass to the status of solo instrument. He, too, had his own example, of whom he spoke fondly and often: his predecessor in the CPO, the "twenty-fiver" Vojta Kuchynka. When it came to the 100th anniversary of Kuchynka's birth, František organised a commemorative evening in his honour, performing in concert with his pupils, in much the same way we used to play on Sádlo's birthdays. Unlike the advocates of the so-called coarse-grained sound, in the orchestra he began to cultivate a soft method of playing which subsequently often had him described as having been the first to learn to play cantilena on the double bass. Whenever I heard his solos in Janáček's Taras Bulba or in Mahler, I always thought that he deserved a round of applause as if he had sat alone on an open stage, like in the theatre. Here, the double bass can either round out an emotional appeal, or completely bury it. František managed to draw it out to maximum effect. And that's what he was like as a person as well. He was religious but certainly not an ascetic. He could talk for hours and also make fun of his own trivialities. Wherever he was, he was immediately the centre of attention. He also appreciated good food and drink, and consumed them with the same absorption he had when he played. He was universally respected by the Philharmonic, not only as a musician and exemplary concertmaster. He worked on the parts for his entire double bass section and, during rehearsal, saw to it that the bowings were unified, that the players used the heel of the bow when the music required, and so on. To this day I can see him constantly turning round to his colleagues during rehearsal.

František worked with Ars Rediviva his whole life as a double bass and violone player, thus we played together on many occasions, performing chamber music, major cycles such as The Art of Fugue and the Brandenburg Concertos, and also miniatures which we added at the end of the concert as the icing on the cake. We also did most of the recordings together. As a partner, František Pošta was ideal - inspiring as a musician and as a person, and it was the same over the years that we played together in the cello and double bass sections of the CPO. During the whole time of our acquaintance, I can't think of a single instance where we would have fallen out over some work issue.

František taught at the Conservatoire from 1946. Many of his graduates work in Czech orchestras, including the Philharmonic, and he also had a number of foreign pupils who came to Prague because of him, in fact, from Japan and other countries where the Philharmonic had performed or where František's records were available on the market. On tour he was always surrounded by double-bass enthusiasts and, unlike other CPO members, he was keen to meet them, indefatigable in his role as teacher.

 

František Pošta and his double bass section

 

Mr Vilím

During the First Republic, Mr Vilím was Talich's custodian, archivist and right-hand man in general, but his chief role was to entice money out of sponsors, which was the most responsible task of all. During concert tours he paid out per diems and fees from funds generated outside the Philharmonic, he supervised the transfer of instruments and concert dress, and was thus much more than a mere office staff member. When I got to know him, he was around sixty years old, and his English profile was adorned with three hairs above his high forehead and a little crescent of white hair at the nape of his neck. He dressed elegantly and he always wore a gold chain which casually peeped out from the pocket of his waistcoat. He had an air of importance, he hardly spoke at all, and he responded to questions curtly and grudgingly. He never smiled, even when laughter was roaring all around him, he merely gave a twisted little grin from the corner of his mouth and cleared his throat occasionally. He simply had the look of one of those superior lords from a bygone era who had been approached to intercede in matters of charitable donations to the orchestra.

But everyone who got to know him better soon realised that all this mimicry and that official air of his were only meant to shield him from the intrusive outside world and that, underneath it, lay a great sense of humour and a wonderful passionate nature. He was grandmaster of the Philharmonic card game mariáš, he taught the game single-mindedly all his life whenever the opportunity arose: in the Smetana Hall by the orchestra's entrance, in the foyer of the recording studio, in hotels, in the train and, above all, in his famous mariáš den in the Rudolfinum. This was a little cubby-hole behind the concert platform, about 2x2 square metres, no windows, and thickly lined with shelves for sheet music and instrument crates. At these daily mariáš sessions the players would smoke nineteen to the dozen, so, from outside, it looked as if the cubby-hole was on fire. During play, he would never be seen without his cigarette in a long bone cigarette-holder, which had invariably gone out, still drooping from the corner of his mouth. And, of course, master Vilím's coarse language was also an integral part of him. I don't think anyone else could have come out with rough grumbling in such a nonchalant and charming way without offending anyone. Even Míla Sádlo and Talich, who called him "Vilímeček", allowed him to get away with anything. He, in turn, checked to make sure all buttons were done up, all bow ties were straight, and every other detail was in place as it should be before they went on stage. The ladies Mr Vilím would call "Milostpaní" ("Madam"), but even for them he remained an authority. Only the singer Marta Krásová kissed him on his high, bald forehead every time she appeared, which, if his buddies from the orchestra commented on it, was probably the only time he ever went red from embarrassment.

 

 

For dozens of years Mr Vilím was Master of Ceremonies for the Philharmonic concerts and a guarantee that things ran smoothly. He was never off sick. In organisational matters, he was a supreme power and always knew what was going on; while he wasn't a musician, he had a remarkable, curious knowledge of the scores. He knew exactly what musicians would be required for a given work, including those with unusual instruments. Thus he could also quickly tell which extras were needed and where he could get hold of them fast in Prague. For example, he'd know that Mr Janda from the Radio Symphony Orchestra played the mandolin, and that Mr Kefurt played the guitar and so on.

So, for generations, Mr Vilím was almost something of a Philharmonic god, or at least his representative on Earth, perpetual and ubiquitous. But suddenly he, too, started walking with a stick and complaining about his bad legs, becoming even more irritable and reticent. And then came the hospital which, given that he smoked fifty a day, had to happen eventually. He never came back to the Philharmonic after that.

During the reconstruction of the Rudolfinum's concert platform, Mr Vilím's notorious card-players' den fell by the wayside as well, thus taking with it a piece of Philharmonic history which the old "twenty-fivers" had fondly nurtured for so long.

 

The Czech Philharmonic during the 1950s: the Prague Spring Festival ...

 

... and one of the Czech Philharmonic's first Slovak tours

 

The Photographers

Josef Sudek's↗ profession had little to do with the Philharmonic, but he was certainly welcomed among the musicians since he was a great fan of classical music. He lived in Prague's Malá Strana district on the street known as Újezd; here he had a little house with a garden which he is said to have acquired from Gustav Laube and it was here that he produced famous series such as Okno mého atelieru (My Studio Window). Milan Munclinger used to tell us about his first visit to see Sudek, when he got entirely lost trying to find his house. This had an invaluable advantage - only those who were invited and welcome could make their way there, above all, Sudek's friends, artists and musicians. There were no booze-ups or slap-up meals to be had here. Guests would listen to records from Sudek's rare collection, they would talk and philosophise. I first encountered him when, as a new member, I would go off to rehearsal at the CPO in the early morning. My older colleagues were able to recognise him from a fair distance, even though he wasn't a very conspicuous figure - slightly bent, bareheaded in the summer, with a few extremely ill-maintained tufts of hair sticking out. In the winter he wore a flat cap and a kind of cloak which was always undone and almost dragging along the ground. He usually had a green military canvas kitbag slung over his shoulder - like the Herálec tramp Bufan. He also used to carry a canvas haversack on his back and an extremely long wooden tripod which he steadied on his shoulder with his one arm (his other arm having been amputated during the First World War). And with all this bulk his entire figure bent forwards even more. He might just have heaved himself up onto Golgotha. I used to come across him most frequently on the bridge near the Rudolfinum when he would walk around the Old Town looking for good photographic shots. In sunny weather he would appear early in the morning; you could have set your watch by him. He didn't look like a man of the world; people probably took him for a homeless person. I think that he rather liked himself in this role, he didn't want to be bothered by people. He managed to do what very few could: to live his life just the way he wanted to. Perhaps this is also why he looked so tranquil all the time. He sought out quiet little corners, unusual light, and he'd spend hours setting up a single shot. The only slightly disconcerting contrast to this sense of serenity was his abrasive, gruff voice. He spoke rapidly, sometimes falling over his words. I got to know Sudek better when Ars Rediviva recorded a programme about Bach with film director Eva Marie Bergerová in 1966. We were performing and Munclinger would say something about the work, as he routinely did for concerts in the Rudolfinum. We had a mini-audience here as well, of course, and Josef Sudek was invited into the studio as a guest; he was a true advocate of early music and he knew how to listen to it like very few did. He told the audience how Munclinger - "back then a whiskerless young student" - used to come and listen to records during the war and one of them was a French recording of Bach's sonatas which completely took his breath away and inspired him to start up a chamber ensemble and create our first Bach series. Sudek thus became not only the "godfather" of Ars Rediviva, but also a regular member of its audience. He came to Czech Philharmonic concerts as well; I'd see him sitting up in the organ gallery. He'd retreat into the shadows, huddled up, silent and unobtrusive.

 

Josef Sudek listening to a rehearsal of Bach with Ars Rediviva

 

      

Josef Sudek and Milan Munclinger

 

When I began to take an interest in photography while I was studying in Prague, I was intrigued primarily by František Drtikol and others from his generation. I later became acquainted with the work of Václav Chochola↗, who created portraits of conductors and reports from concerts, Oldřich Straka, another photographer for the Prague Spring for many years, and then Jan Lukas, considered the best portrait photographer. The latter also took one of the first photographs of Ars Rediviva, at a time when Viktorie Švihlíková was still performing with us.

Most of all I admired Tibor Honty. He loved early music and, as Munclinger's uncle, he came to a lot of our concerts and visited us behind the scenes. He was educated and unassuming, and I never heard him boast about his own work. He had already begun making a name for himself during the First Republic, chiefly for photographing the deprived regions of Eastern Slovakia. He later specialised in sculpture photography and worked for the National Gallery. The photograph on the cover of our first recording of Bach's Musical Offering is by him.

 

For more see  Václav Talich - Czech Chamber Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic OrchestraConductors - Parts 1-3, Czech Philharmonic in period documents, Ars RedivivaMilan Munclinger, Sound Archive and  František Sláma 1923 - 2004.

 


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