Libor Pesek, shy conductor who supported the music of his Czech homeland – obituary

Libor Pesek conducts the Czech National Symphony Orchestra in Prague in 2017 – Michal Dolezal / Avalon

Libor Pesek, who died at the age of 89, was a 53-year-old Czech conductor with a solid, if unspectacular career, largely spent in his homeland when he was appointed principal conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 1987. Orchestra; the next 11 years brought not only a transformation in the orchestra’s fortunes, but also in its own position as conductor and champion of Czech music.

Few modern masters have played the part as much as Pesek, who cut a charismatic, old-fashioned figure exuding authority on the podium. His long white wand drew magical arcs over the heads of his players, as if casting spells from the podium. He was also one of life’s charms, exuding impeccable manners as he bowed deeply to kiss the women on the hand.

At the same time he was a prime example of the new breed of less autocratic conductor. He preferred to work in collaboration with his musicians and was always ready to ask for their advice during rehearsals. In return the musicians developed a warm affection for him, respecting his musical humility, his reactive personality and his ability to assert his authority without hesitation.

The relationship with the RLPO was born in 1986. A trendy Pesek was asked to replace an ailing colleague in two concerts by conducting Asrael, a one-hour romantic symphony by his compatriot Josef Suk, whose music later made much of a champion. in Merseyside.

He recalled that although the performances received enthusiastic response from musicians, audiences and critics, he was initially unsure about accepting the orchestra’s offer to make the city its regular base. “At first I didn’t want to go to Liverpool,” he admitted. “But my manager kept talking about the meaning of the oldest English orchestra and I finally agreed.” He later described himself as a proud Czech, Liverpudian and Adelphian, a reference to the city hotel that became a kind of home away from home.

Although he also held a post in Prague, where he had been conductor-in-residence of the Czech Philharmonic since 1982, Pesek was not your typical jet-set master. When the time allowed, he preferred to drive between the Czech capital and Liverpool, sometimes in his worn Land Rover, stopping along the way to enjoy the local culture. He also invested his money to buy exotic instruments for performances from the rare repertoire he favored.

During the 1990s Pesek and the RLPO presented several great orchestral works of Suk, including Epilogue, Ripening and A Summer’s Tale, in their entirety, both in concert and on CD. They also took the composer’s works on tour to America, Europe and the Far East. “Suddenly, Suk knew no boundaries,” he recalled. Other Czech composers also took a look and his recording of Martinu’s Greek Passion opera with the Prague Radio Choir and Orchestra was widely acclaimed.

Looking back, Pesek described his eleven years in Liverpool as a happy time for all concerned. “I had free rein, I could do what I wanted,” he said. “I met an extraordinary audience, open to all kinds of experiments, and I was at the helm of an orchestra that wanted to know new things and Czech music that they didn’t know.”

Libor Pesek (right) with Czech-born US director Milos Forman in 2007 - MICHAL CIZEK / AFP via Getty Images

Libor Pesek (right) with Czech-born US director Milos Forman in 2007 – MICHAL CIZEK / AFP via Getty Images

Libor Pesek was born in Prague on June 22, 1933, the son of Ludvik Pesek, a civil servant, and his wife Anna. She was the driving force in his son’s musical life, making him study the piano, accompanying him to lessons and supervising his two hours of daily practice. He learned English during the war from an American woman who was stranded in the city.

In high school he had his own jazz band, but he also had a strict piano teacher who guided him towards the classical repertoire. Over time he studied cello, trombone and piano at the Academy of Musical Arts in Prague, later claiming that a good conductor needed experience in all aspects of the orchestra.

In directing the classes, however, he and his fellow students were largely left to fend for themselves. “They just told us to go see the rehearsals and we would learn what was needed there,” he said.

One such occasion was when Pesek went to see veteran conductor Vaclav Talich rehearsing and recording Suk’s Riening. “It was just amazing,” he told Gramophone magazine. “This was the opera whose world premiere he gave in 1918 … I will never forget it on the podium at the final climax of the opera, with tears streaming down his cheeks.”

After graduation he was appointed repeater at the Plzen dance company and spent three years at the National Theater. From 1963 to 1969 he was musical director of the North Bohemian Philharmonic in Teplice, which regularly included outdoor concerts. Remembering it was a baptism of fire. “Suddenly I was working at a fast pace and was relying on great scores, which I hadn’t had the opportunity to direct previously,” he said.

However, Pesek soon demonstrated his skill as a refined and cultured musician. He made his operatic debut in June 1971 with Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro at the Tyl Theater in Prague in shows of great finesse. His first experience abroad was with Frysk Orkest in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, and while he considered himself one of the privileged few, with a passport and permission to travel, he had to surrender most of his earnings to the Communist authorities.

During his decade in Merseyside, Pesek also became a well-known figure in concert halls across Britain, making guest appearances with the BBC Philharmonia and orchestras. He took the RLPOs to the Proms for eleven consecutive years and in 1988 he took them to Prague for four concerts with violinist Nigel Kennedy. Three years later he brought his he Czech Philharmonic to Britain, including a well-received concert in Liverpool.

Pesek also became something of a local celebrity, not least because of his habit of buying large quantities of broccoli in local supermarkets and taking them home in his suitcases because fresh produce was in short supply in Prague. While working in the city he quit smoking and became a vegetarian. “Eet eez ze bodies that bother me”, he explained with the Czech accent that made his English so romantic.

He later recounted how the Liverpool appointment had not only made him feel young again but, thanks to his interest in Buddhism, had also been good for his soul. “I feel like a failure. A total failure, but a dedicated failure, “the shy maestro told the Daily Telegraph when he resigned from work.” Someone who still hopes to be able to walk some distance down the path. “He was subsequently appointed graduate conductor by the orchestra. .

Libor Pesek, who talked about having a love affair with a woman about once every ten years or so, loved his dogs, especially a British-born bull mastiff called Fanny, his cars, and stargazing. In 1996 he was made an honorary KBE during the Queen’s state visit to the Czech Republic. The following year he was awarded the Czech Medal of Merit (first degree) in his homeland.

His partner Jarmila and a son survive.

Libor Pesek, born June 22, 1933, died October 23, 2022

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