Jiří Bělohlávek, the Czech conductor and acclaimed champion of his country’s music, has died, aged 71

Martin Cullingford Thu 1st June 2017

The chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra died in Prague

Jiří Bělohlávek at the BBC Proms (Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou)

Jiří Bělohlávek at the BBC Proms (Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou)

Jiří Bělohlávek’s career began in his native Czechoslovakia - as then was - when he won the Czech National Conducting Competition in 1970, followed by two years as assistant conductor to the Czech Philharmonic. He was to become, relatively briefly, its chief conductor two decades later, before returning again in 2012, meeting with great success, such that his contract had been extended only this year until 2022.

Though his work also included such prominent podiums as Glyndebourne, the New York Met Opera, and the Rotterdam Philharmonic (of which he was principal guest conductor), his other great orchestral partnership was with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This began with a principal guest conductorship from 1995-2000, before Bělohlávek took on the top job in 2006, beginning with the First Night of the Proms in 2006. The following year he conducted the Last Night of the Proms, a task he was to enjoy on two further occasions. He was appointed CBE in 2012.

Bělohlávek’s championship of Czech music, to which he brought both a personal passion and instinctive understanding, resulted in many benchmark catalogue recordings. Of these, three - Janáček’s The Excursions of Mr Broucek (released by DG), Martinů’s complete symphonies (Onyx) and Suk’s A Summer's Tale and Prague (Chandos) won Gramophone Awards. His most recent release was, appropriately enough, another Czech masterpiece - Dvořák’s Stabat Mater, released on Decca. It is reviewed in the current issue of Gramophone, which also contains an interview with the conductor and a profile of the Czech Philharmonic under his leadership.

Paul Hughes, General Manager of the BBC Symphony Orchestra paid the following tribute: ‘Jiří Bělohlávek’s last concert with his beloved BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus was Dvořák’s mighty Requiem Mass and a more fitting tribute to the music making of this extraordinary man it would be hard to imagine. His relationship with the BBCSO spanned 20 years and there are so many memories, but I would single out the pride with which he brought the BBC Symphony Orchestra to the Prague Spring Festival, when the orchestra gave him everything, and he produced award-winning performances and recordings of Czech operas and Martinů symphonies. There was always a sense of family with Jiří, we were his musical family and his family were our family, today we are thinking of his loved ones.’  

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