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FOK Orchestra.

The Struggle for Existence

Founding a new orchestra in Prague in the middle of the economic crisis was a very courageous act, and with it Rudolf Pekarek gave many unemployed musicians hope. On the other hand, the life that awaited them was full of uncertainty. The abbreviation FOK had already appeared in 1934 at the founding meeting in the Kmoch Restaurant in Vinohrady. The letters denoted the expected area of activity: film--opera--concert. Twenty-five musicians called themselves the FOK Orchestra or the FOK Salon Orchestra or sometimes Pekarek's Salon Orchestra. On the 29th of December 1934 they played on the radio for the first time.

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At the beginning the ensemble did indeed make a living by intensive recording of music for films. In 1935 this was 18 films, and by 1943 when the Prague Film Orchestra was founded, the FOK had recorded music for 234 films.

The other opportunities were very various. On the 25th of March 1936 the orchestra gave its first public concert in the Manes Hall, with Vaclav Smetacek conducting pieces by Fr. Bartos, P. Borkovec, J. Jezek, H. Krasa, I. Krejci and B. Martinu. On the 30th of April 1937 the orchestra gave a charity concert for the Opora domova [Home Support] society. Another public concert on the 6th of May 1937 was announced as the opening of a folk cycle, but no further instalments took place. In these years the FOK regularly played for the City Theatre in the suburb of Kralovske Vinohrady. In 1938 the orchestra gave three concerts for the Workers' Academy and appeared at the 10th Sokol National PE Association Meeting. The 19th of November 1939 saw the first of a cycle of Sunday matinee concerts in the Smetana Hall, with Otakar Jeremias conducting Smetana's Ma vlast [My Country]. Vaclav Smetacek conducted the same piece on the 1st of January 1940 in Melnik at the first FOK concert outside Prague. A Folk Cycle of ten matinee concerts was also successfully launched in this year.

In 1942 the Gestapo arrested Pekarek (as a Jew) and on the 12th of May Dr. Vaclav Smetacek was elected as chief of the institution. In August the orchestra received an order to play as the operetta ensemble in the German Theatre in Prague, and in 1944 the members of the orchestra were sent to the Ostmark-Werke factory in Kbely as forced labour.

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On the 19th of May 1945 the orchestra played for the first time in liberated Czechoslovakia and announced a cycle of subscription concerts. Rudolf Pekarek returned from prison and became the leader of the Army Arts Ensemble and the second conductor of FOK. The leaders of the orchestra had fruit-less negotiations with the Prague City Hall in an attempt to secure better material conditions, and there was even talk of moving the FOK to Karlovy Vary. In 1947 the orchestra appeared for the first time at the Prague Spring, but after February 1948 Rudolf Pekarek left the CSR for Australia.

On the 1st of January 1952 the FOK Orchestra was placed under the Central National Committee of the City of Prague and expanded to 82 musicians. The 18-years of struggle to achieve material security were over.

The Prague Symphonics

The official title of the orchestra was completely different: The Symphony Orchestra of the City of Prague FOK. The title still applies today, but for people abroad it is too complicated and unmemorable a name, and even here it became usual to call FOK the Prague Symphonics. For the sake of completeness I shall offer readers a little more information. In 1957 the FOK went abroad for the first time, to Poland, and in 1959 it took part in the first concert in the Motorlet factory and for the first time travelled to the West--to Austria. In 1952 a Concert Agency was established in association with the FOK and a number of chamber ensembles and soloists were successively affiliated to the orchestra. The Prague Symphonics became an important and indeed a massive institution, and the Concert Agency controlled most of concert life in Prague.

The orchestra also gradually acquired an international name, visiting dozens of European and non-European countries to great acclaim. In 1967 it toured in the German Republic and Great Britain for the first time, in 1969 it had its first tour of the USA, in 1972 it appeared for the first time in the USSR, and in 1986 for the first time in Japan. There is no point here in listing all its tours. There were a great many, and all were well received by audiences. FOK did a huge amount of work to promote Czech music culture and also awareness of the existence of a Czechoslovakia, a small state in the heart of Europe.

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A whole series of directors contributed to the developing the profile of the orchestra. The names are not so important in themselves, but I should like to recall at least a few. After the founder Rudolf Pekarek and Vaclav Smetacek (at the beginning both had to take care of both artistic and organisational aspects), there followed Karel Blahout, Jan Hrdlicka, Karel Vodrazka, and Jirl Hlavacek. In 1968-1976 the Fok was led by Ivan Rezac, and after him Ladislav Sip. As excellent musicians both managed to gain and maintain general respect for the orchestra and keep up the highest musical standards. Several subsequent directors who did not bring any conspicuous change, but the most recent stage, represented by members of a younger generation, is worth special mention. In 1992, after the departure of Jiri Pilka, who held the post of director for only a short time, Roman Belor took over the reins. In 2001 he left to become director of the Prague Spring and was replaced at the head of the FOK by Mgr. Petr Polivka. Both breathed a new dynamism into the work and expanded the domestic and international activities of the orchestra, even in what were often difficult economic circumstances.

Repertory directors have also had an influence on the life of the orchestra. More than once the music directors have themselves fulfilled this function, but in some cases the situation has been different. Petar Zapletal was an important and highly professional instance, and in the nineties Bohuslav Vitek. Both made major contributions to the work of the orchestra.

Major Figures

One absolutely key figure in the founding phase of the orchestra was Vaclav Smetacek, already mentioned above. He managed to work fast, oriented programmes to the basic symphonic repertoire, and even under totalitarian regimes was unafraid to present major oratorio and cantata works. He was always welcomed abroad (more than once as an opera conductor). He did a huge amount for Czech music and especially for our modern composers, whose work he presented systematically at home and abroad. He left a permanent mark on Czech musical life, and headed the FOK for a full 36 years (up to 1972).

A whole range of other Czech conductors have worked with the FOK. Some had short terms contracts, others longer. Let us recall names like Stepan Konicek, Jindrich Rohan. Vaclav Neumann, Zdenek Kosler, Ladislav Slovak, Vladimir Valek, and Petr Altrichter, and in recent years Martin Turnovsky.

The principal conductor Jiri Belohlavek achieved his greatest musical successes with the orchestra, which he led from 1977 to 1989, i.e. a full 12 let. In this period there were high-profile foreign tours, a whole series of gramophone recordings, and the home concerts were at the highest possible standard. Belohlavek worked with intensity and systematically; he was demanding, and carefully selected soloists. His successes were conditioned by the fact that he was able to devote a great deal of time to it.

In the Nineties, after the departure of Martin Turnovsky, Gaetano Delogu from Italy worked with the FOK as principal conductor for a while, while several interesting Czech guests alternated with him on the stand (Libor Pesek, Zdenek Macal). The current principle conductor is the French conductor Serge Baudo. It would take a great deal of space to list all the visiting foreign conductors, but here I shall mention just enough to indicate the very high level on which the orchestra has been performing in the post-war years: Paul Hindemith, Dean Dixon, Zubin Mehta, Sir Charles Mackerras, Sir George Solti, Tadeusz Strugala, Kurt Masur, Krzystof Penderecki, Seiji Ozawa, Charles Munch. Many of them appeared with the FOK at the Prague Spring Festival.

Music for Prague

The FOK Concert Agency was founded in 1962 as a practical agency for Prague. Milan Zdrazil, head of the agency, became an important and indeed legendary figure. Together with his colleagues he thought up such celebrated cycles as World Piano Music, the Spring and Autumn Organ Cycle, Pictures and Music, the Major Chamber Cycle and afternoon concerts for school-children. Many of the cycles still exist today, and quite a number have been copied by other agencies.

Milan Zdrazil filled the whole of Prague with music: the Basilica of St. George, galleries, the Bertramka Museum, the Cathedral of St. Vitus, the Basilica of St. James, the Church of St. Simon and St. Jude, the Riding School of the Prague Castle, the Mirror Hall at the Clementinum, the Steps of the National Museum, the Garden in Maltese Square ...

FOK and its agency have brought myriad world virtuosos to Prague. I am thinking first of all of the guest artists that are the pride and joy of every programme. Only an outstanding orchestra can invite outstanding soloists. I shall recall a few names from the post-war period: Peter Schreier, Garrick Ohlsson, Henryk Szeryng, Anne-Sophie Mutter, David Oistrakh, Sviatoslav Richter, Isaac Stern, Arthur Rubinstein, Arturo Benedetti-Michelangeli, Mischa Maisky.

Among great Czech musicians that have worked with it, the orchestra can boast Rudolf Firkusny, Ivan Moravec, Zuzana Ruzickova, Jan Panenka, Josef Palenicek, Frantisek Rauch, Boris Krajny, Josef Suk, Vaclav Snitil, Sasa Vectomov, Josef Chuchro, Jiri Barta, Marta Krasova, Marie Tauberova, Beno Blachut, Eduard Haken, Dagmar Peckova, Ivan Kusnjer and many others. For a certain period the orchestra has been a home haven for various ensembles and soloists. Those who have had FOK contracts include the violinists Vaclav Hudecek, Ivan Straus and Ivan Zenaty, the pianists Mirka Pokorna and Emil Leichner, the cellist Stanislav Apolin, and the violist Lubomir Maly. The number of associated ensembles is highly unusual: the City of Prague Quartet, the Kocian Quartet, the Foerster Trio, Collegium musicum Pragense, the Prague Chamber Soloists. Corni di Praga, Musica da camera Praga. The Suk Chamber Orchestra, The Prague Male Choir, Linha Singers, Bambini di Praga, The Kuhn Mixed Choir, Musica bohemica, the Prague branch of Music Youth.

The list of names has changed, musicians come and gone, but FOK has remained the biggest "home" music institution. A similar model was applied in the Czech Philharmonic, but on a smaller scale. Since 1990 this gigantic musical institution has been progressively scaled down, and now only the Concert Agency remains with the FOK. Reduction has had many positive features: a simplification of the agenda, and entirely independent decision-making by each musician and collective. On the other hand, many of the groups involved have lost a certain minimal material security, each group has been burdened with administrative questions especially in relation to agency negotiation, promotion and budgeting. Only time will tell whether older model did not, in fact, have certain positive aspects to which it would be beneficial to return.

The Future

In the last decade, a number of people have here and there voiced the view that Prague has too many regularly publicly performing large symphony orchestras: the Czech Phil-harmonic, the Prague Symphonics (FOK), and the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra. We have, however, watched with wonder as new bodies, such as the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, have come into being. Admittedly this is not a permanent group, and in practice consists of players from the three traditional orchestras, but it is interesting to see that it is finding a public, space for recordings and engagements abroad. We should also count the Prague Chamber Phil-harmonic, which has joined the ranks of existing chamber ensembles with great success and has its large and faithful public. Are there really too many orchestras?

I am convinced that the present state is viable and acceptable. Certainly some ensembles have problems attracting audiences, but the reason is not an oversupply of concerts, but the quality of the programmes and the price of tickets. The sold out concerts of the Czech Radio Orchestra and the Prague Chamber Orchestra demonstrate that it is the quality of an ensemble and its programmes that is crucial. This means that the key is finding a programme profile, and of course budgeting in a way that keeps the price of tickets at an acceptable level. Unfortunately not all ensembles know how to do this, but the FOK is an excellent example in this respect. The various bodies of the orchestra (the music board etc.) often forced the musical direction to make the programmes as attractive as possible, seen as a matter of including well-worn 19th-century works and excluding more modern or contemporary compositions. The case of the Prague Chamber Philharmonic shows that you can play contemporary music, engage young soloists and conductors, and not lose the public. The FOK is now in many respects doing the same thing.

For years the Prague FOK Symphony Orchestra was an orchestra that maintained a successful identity distinct from the programmes of the Czech Philharmonic. It had a broadly accessible repertoire. Thanks to the FOK it was from time to time possible to hear all Beethoven's symphonies, the main works of Smetana, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Debussy and hundred of other pieces. The presentation of the great oratorios was also a worthy project. As students this meant we could get to know Handel's Messiah, Bach's Mass in B Minor, Verdi's Requiem, Dvorak's Requiem and Stabat mater, Orff's Carmina Burana, but also the cantatas of Vycpalek, Novak and so on. At the same time FOK would regularly present contemporary Czech music, and composers like Lubos Fiser, Jan Klusak and dozens of others can thank the orchestra for their arrival on the music scene. One traditional bad habit in the Czech Republic is the "grading" of orchestras, and the way they are judged in terms of hierarchy. Only one can be first and best, and the others have to be second or third. This is not the case abroad, or at least not as a permanent feature for nearly a century. Who would stick his neck out to say which of London's five large symphony orchestras is the number one? Or whether the Birmingham was better under Simon Rattle? Different orchestras have their own history, rise, peak and fall, and that is certainly true in the Czech Republic as well, except that here the ranking tendency has settled in the minds of administrators and so some bodies have better economic (mainly salary) conditions than others. This in many cases limits the quality of the performers who can be engaged, invitations to soloists etc. In FOK they are very conscious of the problem and it is a mistake to keep on rating a body as the "Prague Number Two", for example. I leave aside the long-term underpayment of the players in all our orchestras, since that is a different problem.

The freedom we have today means that no one is restricted on ideological grounds and everyone is responsible for himself or herself. It is not an easy situation, but it is an opportunity for creative activity. And it is possible to be creative in organisational and agency work as well, and in programming. The FOK has plenty of potential for a successful future in its staff. Let us hope and trust that the springs of their ingenuity will not run dry, that they will continue to have unending ideas and inspiration, and that in the tough competition with the other Prague ensembles the orchestra will maintain its strong and still irreplaceable position. Looking back on what the FOK has done over seventy years for Czech music, in Prague, in the Republic and abroad--often in very difficult circumstances--we are full of admiration and gratitude.

With permission of magazine Harmonie Photos: FOK archive

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Title Annotation:history
Author:Pilka, Jiri
Publication:Czech Music
Date:Jul 1, 2004
Words:2708
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