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The son of a lawyer, the Czech conductor Jiří Bĕlohlávek was born in Prague in 1946. Initially he studied the cello at the Prague Conservatory and at the Academy of Music, where he also learnt conducting with several major Czech musicians, including Josef Veselka and Alois Klíma. In 1968, during the ‘Prague Spring’, as that brief interlude of moderate Communism in Czechoslovakia became known, the legendary Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache was giving masterclasses for conducting students in Prague and Bĕlohlávek attracted his attention. At that time Celibidache was based in Sweden, working as the chief conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra; having been invited to assist him, Bĕlohlávek therefore spent the next two years working with Celibidache in Stockholm.

In 1970 he took first prize in a Czech young conductors’ competition, and for the next two years, up until 1972, he worked as an assistant conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. He reached the finals of the Herbert von Karajan Conducting Competition in West Berlin in 1971, after which he was invited to become conductor of the Brno State Philharmonic Orchestra, a post he held from 1972 to 1978. In 1977 he was appointed as chief conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra. Second only to the Czech Philharmonic, this orchestra plays a major role in musical performance in Prague and nationally, and Bĕlohlávek led it with distinction until 1989. He returned to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra between 1990 and 1992, this time as its chief conductor.

The collapse of Communism, and the consequent gradual withdrawal from musical institutions of the level of state funding they had previously enjoyed, stimulated local organisations increasingly to look further afield for links with non-Czech musicians, and Bĕlohlávek’s career temporarily suffered because of this tendency. In 1993 he founded the Prague Philharmonia, initially on behalf of the Czech Ministry of Defence, but following a change of direction at the Ministry, the orchestra became a non-profit body. Attracting many brilliant young musicians, it became a force to be reckoned with musically in Prague, earning praise for its exceptional musicianship.

In 1995 Bĕlohlávek made his debut with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducting Martinů’s The Epic of Gilgamesh. So great was his impact upon the orchestra that he was immediately invited to become its principal guest conductor, with effect from the autumn of 1995. By now his career was taking on a significant international dimension. For instance during the 1997–1998 season, in addition to his work as principal guest conductor of Prague’s National Theatre and the recording of the complete Beethoven symphonies with the Prague Philharmonia, he appeared with orchestras in Dresden, Leipzig, Minneapolis, Houston, St Louis, Toronto and Tokyo. In 2000 he opened the season at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera with a new production of Janáček’s Jenůfa, which was highly praised. His relationship with the BBC Symphony Orchestra was cemented with his appointment as its chief conductor, with effect from the 2006 Promenade Concerts. Bĕlohlávek now divides his time between his work as a major musical figure in his home country, and as a welcome guest with many of the world’s finest orchestras, in centres such as Paris, Berlin, London, and Vienna as well as New York, Boston, San Francisco and Toronto.

Jiří Bĕlohlávek’s conducting style is undemonstrative and is at all times dedicated to realising the composer’s intentions with the minimum of idiosyncratic interpretative intervention. He is able to generate considerable intensity in performance, especially in that of large-scale choral works, such as Dvořák’s Stabat Mater. Bĕlohlávek has noted that ‘…music was one of the very few areas where the Czech element could express itself freely’, especially under the Communist regime, and his performances of the Czech repertoire capture the fervour and lust for life of the greatest Czech composers, such as Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček and Martinů. Also notable are his powerful interpretations of major Romantic and late-Romantic composers, such as Brahms and Mahler. Bĕlohlávek has recorded extensively for the Czech labels Supraphon and Panton, and for the British label Chandos. His most outstanding recordings are those in which he leads the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, where the high calibre of orchestral execution and Bĕlohlávek’s deep musicianship result in performances of exceptional quality.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).

Role: Conductor 
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