Kaspar Zehnder – the new Chief Conductor of the Prague Philharmonia


Interview with Kaspar in the 09/2005 issue of the Czech music magazine «Hudební rozhledy» as a new Chief Conductor of the Prague Philharmonia.

After ten years under the baton of its founder, Jiří Bělohlávek, the Prague Philharmonia now has a new chief conductor. The post was taken over last autumn – at the moment for three seasons – by the thirty-five year old Swiss conductor, Kaspar Zehnder. The new permanent conductor is Jakub Hrůša and Michel Swierczewski from France will remain in his post as the main guest conductor. According to Professor Bělohlávek, who has retained his post as the honorary conductor, the ensemble has been joined by an artist at the height of his creative powers who will lead the Philharmonia in a similar way and will further develop its rich potential. Jiří Bělohlávek, the chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London since 2006, originally thought that he would lead “his” Prague orchestra (established in 1994) for just five years. After ten years, he feels that it is high time for new artistic strength to join the ensemble.

Kaspar Zehnder, a trained flautist and conductor, commenced his professional career as an assistant to Charles Dutoit at the Parisian Orchestre National de France, while also holding the post of the musical coordinator for the European Mozart Academy at the same time. He was appointed the artistic director of the orchestra at the Musical Academy in Berne in 1997, he became the artistic director of the Murten Classical Music Festival in 1999 and he has been the main guest conductor of the Sibiu Philharmonic Orchestra since 2002. He has been the musical director at the Paul Klee Centre in Berne since 2004. Zehnder regularly cooperates as a guest conductor with several orchestras, for example in Moscow, Bratislava, Krakow, Berne and Lausanne. He has also been involved in opera since 2003. Zehnder first conducted the Prague Philharmonia in the summer of 2001. With regard to the approaches of Jiří Bělohlávek and Michel Swierczewski, he has declared that “I am capable of achieving a synthesis between them both”.


You have a new job in Prague. What are your main goals for it? 

The instrument known as the Prague Philharmonia – to use automobile technology – is a Rolls Royce and it is necessary to care for this instrument with this in mind. However, because I am a representative of the young generation, I will occasionally possibly also use part of a motor from a Porsche … My main artistic goal is to provoke a general discussion about music: after all, music is an excellent provider of positive energy – and that must be shown at every occasion. Music can provide answers to the – sometimes terrible – daily news. Music knows no borders between religions or between political and ethical persuasions. Music does not need any translation into any other language. Musical interpretation provides the basis for contemporary and worldwide considerations of mankind. Music is beautiful, but it is also often exciting … A large part of our joint work will be to get used to each other with regard to what lies behind the notes, i.e. with regard to what we jointly consider to be art. And as it is not possible to separate art and economics, I will also dedicate all of my abilities towards ensuring that the orchestra has a stable financial basis.

How important for you is the Prague legacy of the chief conductor Jiří Bělohlávek?

Well, I must answer this in three points. Maestro Bělohlávek is one of my favourite conductors and he has been since the beginning of my studies. It is therefore the greatest possible honour for me to be his successor at any orchestra. Prague is one of my most dear cities, very personally. I feel at home in Prague like almost nowhere else. And the Prague Philharmonia is not only one of the best orchestras within the framework of both the Czech Republic and Europe, but it is also a challenge for me personally. When I first conducted it, I felt that I had found something which I had long been looking for as a conductor: my own voice. I can have a lot of beautiful concerts with many varied ensembles, but I have never felt such a strong wish to immerse myself much more in collective work. In a word – the Prague legacy of Jiří Bělohlávek is important for me both in a personal and in a professional sense.

What do you think should continue and what should be new or different?

Several years ago, after a performance of Beethoven’s Eroica, I wrote a letter to Jiří Bělohlávek thanking him for lending me his instrument. I had the feeling that compared to other performances these musicians knew the score so much more from a chamber point of view, that it was enough for me to play on the keyboard and to play around with the registers and it was not necessary to rehearse the work as a structure. Nevertheless, the orchestra sounded different. It is difficult to believe that the mere presence of the conductor could change the sound. I certainly do change the sound, however, but I hope that I never destroy it. And of course my main orientation will not be towards the repertoire which is often played by Jiří Bělohlávek, but on the other hand I will discover new areas which will also be interesting for our audiences.

How do you intend to cooperate with Michel Swierczewski?

He is an expert in the music of the twentieth century and the music of classicism. He has acquainted the orchestra with the modern style of classical interpretation. It is wonderful to discuss the programs and concepts with him. I am looking forward to a fruitful partnership and friendship with him. I am not an expert in anything – for that matter the chief conductor must be open and prepared for all tasks ranging from subscriber concerts through to activities for children and parents or special events for sponsors and tours around the world. At first, I would like to do as many different things as possible so that I can find out what suits the orchestra and me the best or what doesn’t suit us at all.

How often will you let – and I mean that in inverted commas - Jiří Bělohlávek conduct?

As often as he will let me ask him to do it … But seriously. That is, of course, mainly a question of dates and not an artistic question. The fact that Jiří Bělohlávek is leaving the orchestra as a friend naturally provides a good basis so that the Prague Philharmonia and he can appear together whenever that is possible.

What do you think are the differences between the two of you?

Jiří Bělohlávek is or was originally a string player, but I am a wind instrument player. He leads orchestras with a load of experiences, he is also a professor, while I am still gathering experiences every day and my bag is only half-full. He is a person whom I respect greatly; he could be my teacher and advisor, even my father. If we were similar or the same, which is not possible, I would be a copy of him. However, I must go my own way and while doing so respect the advice of a number of my friends and colleagues and be thankful for it.

Do you have any special ideas about new territories where you could take the Prague Philharmonia? Do you see and chances for recording?

My special domain will definitely be Viennese classicism, firstly Haydn and Mozart, maybe Beethoven a little later, then Schubert (who especially requires musicians to find out what is behind the notes), Schumann, Brahms and Dvořák – so why not do this very distinctly with a medium-sized orchestra? Given that religion and belief in God are important for me, albeit that I do not accept or even understand any religious conflicts, I would like to perform oratorios from Bach to Penderecki. I like the music of the twentieth century with a special orientation towards French and Czech works. I think that I know the lighter repertoire such as operettas and salon hits really well, and I like jazz, Greek, Armenian, Gypsy, Rumanian, Sardinian and Arabian music … My God, the world of music is so rich! We will record whatever is the best and whatever we are the best at together. I am against sentences of the type that “it is good to have recordings”.

And what about the Czech music?

When I saw the Bartered Bride at the National Theatre ten years ago, it spoke to me and affected me deeply. Or maybe I have that from a previous life. In any case, I began collecting Czech music – scores, albums… I now know a large part of the works of Dvořák, Janáček, Smetana and Martinu, but I am also interested in the little or rarely played repertoire. In Switzerland, they speak of me as a maniac for Czech music. When I put together the program for the 2004 Murten Classic Festival with Czech music as the main theme, I submerged very deep once again and I discovered Czech baroque and pre-classicist composers, Czech music from the period of the Second World War, especially the so-called Theresienstadt composers, and music from the period of socialism. I am currently undertaking expansive research into contemporary Czech music. It needs time, but it is my main area together with French music. A lot of Czech works have been written for large orchestras and there are not so many for our smaller classical ensemble – but that could also constitute an opportunity to find new works.

How important is the background of an instrumental player for you?

As a flautist, I am used to breathing and exercising, which is important for all musicians, not only for singers and wind instrument players. I still play an instrument, I perform highly self-critically, but I desperately need it. As an instrumentalist, I perform without compromises. Whatever happens is simply my mistake. For a conductor, it is generally difficult to penetrate the score without the ability to play the piano. I am not a good pianist, but when playing the piano, I learn a lot about music, about instrumentation and about orchestral tone colours. All of the great composers wrote for the piano. It is possible to gain a direct impression of the personality of the author even from the smaller works.

Can you give us more details as to the extent of your artistic activities and responsibilities in Prague?

I have a contract for six to eight concerts – two in the A subscriber cycle, one or two in the O subscriber cycle, the same in the S cycle and two concerts in the D/E cycle in the season. I would like to do a lot of exceptional events – festival performances, concerts for sponsors, special gala concerts and so on. I am responsible for the artistic side of the program – for the selection of the works, the soloists and the conductors. I will do what I can to promote the orchestra in the economic sphere. I will travel abroad with the ensemble – and I am sure that I will then know every musician better. Apart from that, I would like to begin a dialogue with the media and in the area of cultural politics, so that I can get to know our partners better.

Do you like the sound and profile of the ensemble? Would you like to change something about it?

As I have said, I like both very much. I think that the sound will develop automatically, provided we do not forget to work on it. The orchestra’s profile has two sides – size and repertoire. I do not want to change the size, but I would maybe go into areas which have not yet been overly investigated and which are often the realm of larger orchestras in the Czech Republic. Quality must be in the first place in everything that I do.

Will you maintain the typical low average age in the Prague Philharmonia or will the orchestra get older?

Quality is in first place and the question of age comes later. Our musicians do not have life-long contracts and in theory they can be changed every year. As they get older, they will become more experienced, but sometimes they can also lose their motivation, which I can understand. I respect the personality, character, opinions, problems and the artistic priorities of every individual, but at the same time I require the highest possible professionalism and quality from them. If our musicians remain capable of competing with the upcoming younger generation, then their age will be of no importance.

What is your favourite music?

Good music, well interpreted. Anything that isn’t boring. It doesn’t matter if it is classical music, jazz, rock or folk and so on.

And what is typical for you outside music and you work?

I am very deeply fond of my family – my wife, parents, sister and brothers and my friends who mostly are not musicians. I like classical languages (Greek and Latin) and etymology. I am a passionate reader of all types of literature, at the moment mostly in Spanish. I like to admire medieval architecture, i.e. Romanesque and gothic architecture, and paintings from all epochs. I like walking outdoors and skiing and I like being on a small island in the Mediterranean. I like good wine and of course also Czech beer.


The Prague Philharmonia will not be your only workplace. Where else will we be able to see you?

Prague will be my main workplace for the coming several years. Of course, I will also remain in the artistic management team for the music at the Paul Klee Centre in Berne and the Murten Classic Festival. As I have worked a lot with the Philharmonia in the Rumanian city of Sibiu, I will remain in contact with them for the project entitled Sibiu – the Cultural Metropolis of Europe for 2007. As far as other places, concerts and orchestras are concerned, please ask my agent. It is not important for me to be famous or to have a huge career as soon as possible. I just want to do well the things that I am requested to do.

Petr Veber, Hudební rozhledy


Original article in Czech.


Read article online in Czech.