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Czech Republic: Philharmonic Welcomes Conductor Ashkenazy

By Jan Cleave

Prague, 15 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Two years after a scandal that shook the Czech musical establishment, Prague is preparing to welcome a man who many hope will help restore the prestige of the country's cultural flagship. Tonight (Jan. 15), Russian-born Vladimir Ashkenazy officially assumes his duties as chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. In the Rudolfinum, the orchestra's majestic 19th-century home on the bank of the Vltava, he will conduct works by Antonin Dvorak, Felix Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss.

In January 1996, when Germany's Gerd Albrecht resigned as chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic amid mutual recriminations and a vicious press campaign that straddled the Czech-German border, Ashkenazy had not yet conducted the Prague orchestra. He made his conducting debut with the elite Czech ensemble in early 1997, at a time when the orchestra's management was still looking for a successor to Albrecht. Following a second encounter with the orchestra, to record several symphonic poems by Strauss, he was offered the chief conductorship.

Speaking to RFE/RL several months before his appointment, Ashkenazy professed to know little about the scandal surrounding his German colleague. But he added that he did not believe Albrecht --whom he called his friend-- could be held responsible for what had happened.

Many in Prague would disagree with that viewpoint. They argue that the outspoken Albrecht was a second-rate conductor who responded to criticism of his Prague performances by citing anti-German sentiments. They also charge he was insensitive to the special nature of Czech-German relations, at the time burdened by the stalled negotiations on a joint declaration in which each country was to apologize for the wrongs it inflicted on the other during and after World War Two. That declaration was not signed until January 1997.

Others in the Czech capital take a more moderate view. They point to the blatant nationalist campaign that the Czech media conducted against Albrecht and the revolt within the orchestra among those who openly asserted that the chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic should be a Czech.

In some quarters, moreover, there is an apparent sense of relief that a non-Czech of Ashkenazy's standing was prepared to become the second-only foreigner --after Albrecht-- to hold sway at the Rudolfinum. Jiri Pehe, political adviser to President Vaclav Havel, told RFE/RL that Ashkenazy's arrival in the Czech capital is a great event for the country's musical life. "After all that happened during Albrecht's tenure, we are lucky to have some one as gifted and internationally renowned as Ashkenazy at the head of the Czech Philharmonic," Pehe commented.

That Ashkenazy was born in Russia --another country with which Czechs have had troubled relations this century-- seems to have caused little discord to date, even among the more fiercely patriotic members of the orchestra. It is said that when Ashkenazy conducted the Czech Philharmonic for the first time last year, he asked the musicians if they wanted him to speak in German, English, or Russian. They responded that he could speak anything he liked, but not Russian. Ashkenazy reportedly understood that response in the spirit in which it was meant, and relations have been warm ever since.

Indeed, having left the Soviet Union in 1963, shortly after winning joint first prize in the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, Ashkenazy has long come to be regarded as a cosmopolitan Westerner. Married to an Icelander, he took up the citizenship of that country after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Today, he resides mainly in Switzerland.

Over the years, Ashkenazy has cut back considerably on his appearances as a pianist and now devotes most of his energies to conducting. While he has never quite managed to shake off the image of "pianist-turned-maestro," he has nonetheless carved a substantial niche for himself as a conductor. His recordings with such orchestras as London's Philharmonia and the Boston Symphony have been highly acclaimed, and he has enjoyed a productive relationship with Berlin's German Symphony Orchestra.

However, he recently announced that he will quit the chief conductorship of the German Symphony in the year 2000, saying after his arrival in Prague this week that he intends to devote more time to the Czech Philharmonic. He has described the century-old orchestra as one of "Central Europe's sleeping giants," a reference to its dwindling reputation since the long line of such outstanding Czech conductors as Vaclav Talich, Rafael Kubelik and Vaclav Neumann petered out.

While those conductors demonstrated a deep intuitive understanding for the music of their homeland, Ashkenazy confesses to have little knowledge of Czech composers other than Dvorak. He stresses, however, that he wants to change that situation, arguing this should not prove a problem since he, too, is a Slav and therefore Slavic music is "in his blood." Czechs will have a chance to judge for themselves when Ashkenazy opens tonight's concert with Dvorak's concert overture "V prirode" (In Nature's Realm), a work little known outside the country that inspired it.