PKO - Prague Chamber Orchestra
Prague Chamber Orchestra boast a unique position not only among Czech ensembles, for similar formations are quite rare even worldwide as performing music without a conductor requires a special rapport of all orchestra members. Each relates not to the conductor’s baton but to the ensemble as a whole, assuming the role of a chamber music player even though the instrumentation is much larger, stemming from the late 18th century peak Classicist period practice. The instrumentation thus comprises a multiplied string quartet (11 violins, 4 violas, 4 violoncellos a 2 basses) supplemented with a doubled wind sextet (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, French horns, trumpets) and timpani.
It was the initiative of the players as performers of solo parts that has been making the Prague Chamber Orchestra’s history ever since its beginnings when first players of the individual instrument sections of the Czechoslovak Radio Symphony Orchestra got together to start a smaller ensemble better suited for their new programming, then focused largely on older Bohemian music, as attested by the ensemble’s very first recording, Orchestral Quartet by Karel Stamic, cut in October 1951. The appearance at the prestigious Prague Spring Festival a year later then rocketed the orchestra among the most-demanded Czech ensembles, a status much enhanced also by the growing tendency to abolish the former practice of full instrumentation of older music.
The repertoire of this type of ensemble therefore stems mainly from the Classicist heritage (Haydn, Mozart, early Beethoven) but finds much inspiration also in the High Baroque (Bach, Händel, Vivaldi). The instrumentation practised by the orchestra, however, can be found in music of the early Romantic period (Mendelssohn, Schubert) a quite frequently in works by 20th century composers (Britten, Honegger, Prokofiev, Stravinski).
An inseparable part of the repertoire is naturally made up by scores composed by older Bohemian masters comprising names such as Michna, Zelenka, Stamic, Benda, Dušek, Mysliveček, Vaňhal, Koželuh, Vranický, Rejcha, Jírovec, Voříšek etc. While the orchestra’s favourites naturally include also Dvořák, Janáček and Martinů, the ensemble performs also music by a number of contemporary composers many of whom write directly for it.
In time the growing demand started to clash with the duties of the players as members of the radio orchestra, the situation logically led to the Prague Chamber Orchestra becoming independent in 1965. Following the fall of the Communist regime the musicians took over the operation themselves through their own company, PKO Agency Ltd.
The impressive half a-century long performance of Prague Chamber Orchestra has left a distinguished mark on both the domestic and international concert scene. On the average, the ensemble plays some 40 concerts annually. The Czech audience has a chance to subscribe to a series of 4 – 6 concerts held in the Rudolfinum’s Dvorak Hall or to hear the orchestra at one of its guest appearances around the country. Apart from that, it has long been a regular performer at the two major Czech music festivals, Prague Spring and Dvořák Prague Festival.
However, some four-fifths of all concerts take place abroad. Apart from frequently appearing around Europe including festivals such as Biarritz, the Rheingau Festival or the Mozartfest in Würzburg, the orchestra also travels overseas and has been on eight extensive tours to Latin America, fourteen to the United. States and Canada and six to Japan. Recently it has played to great acclaim in Australia, Hong Kong, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia and Singapore.
Throughout the 58 years of its existence the ensemble has recorded a great many scores for Supraphon, Denon, BMG, Harmonia Mundi, EMI, Telarc and other labels and its extensive discography boasts a number of prestigious prizes such as Suprahon’s Golden Disc, the Wiener Flötenuhr or the Grand Prix du Disque Académie Charles Cros.
Despite its name and the prevailing mode of performing music, however, Prague Chamber Orchestra does not shun working with a conductor, and namely so in the recording studio, as attested by the ensemble’s very successful cooperation with Václav Neumann and Gerd Albrecht, or a long-term project to record all of Mozart’s symphonies conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras.
The long list of soloists with whom the orchestra has had the pleasure to play includes such renowned names as Emil Gilels, Paul Badura-Skoda, Arturo Benedetti-Michelangeli, Rudolf Buchbinder, Salvatore Accardo, Henryk Szeryng, Josef Suk, Maxim Vengerov, Barbara Hendricks, Christian Benda, Heinrich Schiff, Uto Ughi, Boris Pergamenschikow, Stefan Vladar, Mischa Maisky or The Beaux Arts Trio and Eroica Trio. The ensemble whose top Czech performers include e.g. Zuzana Ruzickova, Ivan Moravec, Zdenek Tylsar, Vaclav Hudecek, Michal Kanka and others is also proud of a very fruitful cooperation with the rising stars of the concert circuit, e.g. cellist Sol Gabetta, violinists Junko Chiba and Mirijam Contzen, flutist Davide Formisano or trumpeters Sergei Nakariakov and Gabor Boldoczki.
For many soloists, playing with Prague Chamber Orchestra is a challenge to try – apart from playing their particular score – leading the orchestra. However, when a soloist is not given to this mode of playing, quite common in the past, the key role of the orchestra’s coordinator passes to the concert master. This is why the players select him very carefully as he gives the whole ensemble’s performance the definite expression. At present, the orchestra´s deputy concert master is Pavel Šafařík.