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Czech: Can Ashkenazy Succeed Where Albrecht Failed?

By Jan Cleave

Prague, 9 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Eighteen months after Gerd Albrecht's ignominious departure, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra has a chief conductor again. The Russian-born pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy was appointed to that post last week and is scheduled to take up his duties in Prague in January 1998. At the same time, he will continue to serve as musical director of the Berlin-based Germany Symphony Orchestra.

Albrecht resigned as chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic at the beginning of last year following a widely publicized dispute with the Czech authorities that had overtly nationalist overtones. The first foreigner to hold that post, the German maestro was frequently criticized in the local press for allegedly lowering orchestral standards and lacking an understanding of Czech music. When he declined an invitation for the Czech Philharmonic to perform in Israel, citing inadequate rehearsal time, he was accused of anti-Semitism. And when the press alleged that he had illegally pocketed money from a foreign tour, calls for his resignation -- both from within and outside the orchestra -- were increasingly heard.

Albrecht was quick to lash out when attacked by journalists. Shortly before his resignation, he was reported to have told a German magazine that he was being made to atone for 300 years of Habsburg rule, the Nazi occupation, and East Germany's participation in the 1968 Soviet-led occupation of Czechoslovakia. Albrecht denied having made those remarks when both the Czech president and culture minister expressed indignation over them. Nonetheless, he was stripped of his decision-making powers in early January 1996 and resigned several weeks later.

Following Albrecht's departure from Prague, many observers were convinced that the orchestra's management would not risk a second public showdown by appointing another foreigner as the head of the Czech Republic's "national treasure" -- or its "jewel," as Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus once called the Philharmonic at the height of the Albrecht affair. But while several Czech candidates were named, none apparently found official favor. The longer the search for a chief conductor took, the more apparent it became that there was no home-grown talent to continue the illustrious line of Czechs who had helped make the Czech Philharmonic a world-class ensemble.

As if to underscore that dilemma, the orchestra's director-general took great pains last week to stress that, while the Czech Philharmonic's new chief conductor may not be Czech, he is nonetheless a "great friend" of the Czech Republic. He also pointed out that Ashkenazy's decision to renounce his Soviet citizenship was prompted by the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. (In fact, Ashkenazy had already been living in the West for five years by the time the Warsaw Pact tanks crossed the Czechoslovak borders.) The maestro, for his part, admitted that he has not played much Czech music but that he hopes to make up for that deficit during his tenure in Prague.

A fleeting acquaintance with the Czech repertoire may prove N-O-T to be a disadvantage, however. Albrecht had made much of his great love for, and intimate knowledge of, Czech music -- to the extent that his colleagues in the West even referred to him as "Mr. Dvorak." But many of the Prague musicians are reported to have dismissed this professed love and knowledge as arrogant posturing on the part of the German. And the Czech press certainly paid no heed to either when it slammed his performances of Dvorak and Smetana as regrettably void of Bohemian nuances.

Much more importance is likely to be attached to Ashkenazy's ability to win lucrative recording contracts in the West. Though better known --and more accomplished-- as a pianist than a conductor, Ashkenazy has a name that is recognized world-wide and will promote sales in whatever capacity he appears. Apart from concluding a contract with a Japanese company, Albrecht was unable to make a significant difference to the Czech Philharmonic's coffers. Had he been able to do so, he might have been "forgiven" for some of his comments.

But ultimately, two other factors may determine whether Ashkenazy succeeds where Albrecht failed. First, unlike his German colleague, Ashkenazy tends to keep a low public profile and would likely refrain from retaliating --at least as vehemently as Albrecht did-- if he were to be attacked on the grounds of his origins. Second, it cannot be ruled out that such attacks might be, if not absent, at least few and far between. However strongly some Czechs may still feel about preserving the "Czechness" of their Philharmonic, they may well realize that another debacle would be ruinous for the orchestra's already tarnished reputation. They may also have come around to the idea --long accepted in most other capitals-- that cultural flagships can benefit from foreign input.

In the meantime, skepticism remains in some quarters -- particularly in Germany. The day after Ashkenazy's appointment, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published an editorial predicting that the musician was headed for difficult times in Prague. Noting that the German Albrecht was reproached for lacking Czech feeling, the daily asked whether the "Russian Jewish Ashkenazy will be similarly attacked." One can only hope that Prague will not prove to be another Vienna, the newspaper concludes, alluding to the Austrian capital's long history of discrimination against foreign --and particularly Jewish-- conductors.