Libor Pešek studied conducting, piano, cello and trombone at the Prague Academy of Music, where his teachers included Ančerl, Neumann, and Smetáček. In an interview with Bill Newman he has given wry memories of this period: ‘As my deceased colleague Zdenĕk Kosler remembers: “I was a self-taught person from the class of Professor Smetáček.” We were all there, but the professors never attended the classes—they were all away conducting…What the Academy gave us was time to be around music in Prague where Karel Ančerl was an enlightened, lucid person, a perfectionist when rehearsing the orchestra…Ančerl was an excellent conductor who was generous enough every second or third week to invite the big maestros of the world. We pupils experienced Erich Kleiber, Charles Munch, George Szell, all paraded in front of us. They were all different, and in those days Czech Philharmonic rehearsals started on Saturday and went on to Thursday when there was the first concert. There were five rehearsals for each concert, and we had time to watch and see how things should be done. Sir John Barbirolli came, and also brought the Hallé Orchestra. Except for Toscanini and Walter, they were all there.’
After graduating, Pešek worked as a répétiteur firstly at the Opera at Plzeň, the capital of West Bohemia, and then at the Prague National Theatre. He founded the wind group, the Prague Chamber Harmony, in 1958 and directed it until 1964: the group made a number of distinguished recordings for the Czech state record label, Supraphon. During this period he also conducted the Sebastian Orchestra, which was based in Prague, played jazz trombone and founded a swing orchestra. He has suggested that this is what gave him his feel for sound: ‘I think that with a big band the “sound” is almost everything.’ Between 1963 and 1969 he served as conductor of the North Bohemian Symphony Orchestra, based in Teplice; from 1970 to 1977 as conductor of the Czechoslovak State Chamber Orchestra in Pardubice; and then of the East Bohemian State Symphony Orchestra. At the same time Pešek was gaining valuable experience from working in Holland, where he was chief conductor of the Frysk (Frisian) Orchestra of Leeuwarden from 1969 to 1975 and of the Overýssel Philharmonic Orchestra from 1975 to 1979. He first appeared with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in 1972, and after a short period (1981–1982) as chief conductor of the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom he recorded extensively, he served as the permanent conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra from 1982 to 1990.
Following a highly successful debut in the United Kingdom in 1985 with the Philharmonia Orchestra, Pešek was invited to work with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and after only two concerts with the orchestra was appointed its chief conductor, with effect from 1987. He held this post for ten years, helping the orchestra to establish an international presence: with Pešek at the helm the orchestra toured the USA, the Far East and Europe with great success, and it was the first non-Czech orchestra to be invited to open the Prague Spring Festival, in May 1993. Pešek’s time with the RLPO also coincided with a relatively buoyant period for the record industry and together they made numerous distinguished recordings for the Virgin label, which further reinforced both his and the orchestra’s international reputations; Pešek has subsequently made several records with the orchestra for its own record label. For his services to music he was awarded an honorary knighthood in 1996, and after resigning as chief conductor in 1997, he maintained a close link with the RLPO as its conductor laureate, appearing with it each season.
With a firm international reputation, Pešek has subsequently worked extensively as a guest conductor, appearing with many of the major American orchestras and throughout Europe, as well as in his home country; in addition he is principal guest conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra. He is realistic about the limits of guest conducting, commenting that ‘…with just two or three rehearsals, you accept what is and just bring to the players’ attention certain traditional things that you think will work…But you can hardly expect any conductor…to change the sound or style of any orchestra in just three days. What is important is playing of integrity.’
Pešek favours a very liquid style of conducting with an emphasis on highly refined phrasing and the most subtle orchestral textures. To achieve these characteristics in performance he is a conductor who strokes an orchestra rather than beats it. The exceptional results may easily be heard in his recordings. In addition he has the rare ability to generate an extremely powerful sense of atmosphere, especially in late-Romantic music, of which he is a notable exponent, in particular by Czech composers such as Suk. A man of great personal charm, he is admired by orchestral players and by audiences alike. His recorded repertoire is a good reflection of his strengths and achievements as a conductor. It is conceivable that full recognition of Pešek’s strengths as a conductor has yet to take place.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).