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Bělohlávek conducted the Last Night of the Proms three times

Katy Wright

Deputy Editor, Classical Music

Jiří Bělohlávek (24 February 1946 – 1 June 2017)

2:18, 1st June 2017

Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek has died aged 71 following a long illness.

One of the most respected interpreters of Czech music, he championed works by Martinů, Dvořák and Janáček alongside repertoire by lesser-known names including Ostrčil, Foerster and Slavický.

Best known on these shores as the chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, he held a number of other major posts in his home country. These include chief conductor with the Czech Philharmonic, a role he held briefly in the early 1990s and returned to in 2012. Earlier this year, the orchestra extended his contract until 2021/22.

Born in Prague in 1946, Bělohlávek studied at the Prague Conservatory and the Academy of Music, initially specialising in cello but soon focusing on conducting.

After two years assisting Sergiu Celibidache, Bĕlohlávek won the Czech Young Conductors’ Competition in 1970. Soon after, he was appointed chief conductor of the Brno Philharmonic (1972-78) and held the same role with the Prague Symphony Orchestra FOK between 1977 and 1989.

In 1990 he became chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, but quit the post (which he would resume in 2012) in 1994 to form the Prague Philharmonia, of which he was chief conductor until 2005.

Following his debut appearance with the orchestra (in which he conducted Martinů’s The Epic of Gilgamesh),  Bělohlávek became the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s guest conductor in 1995, and became chief conductor the following year, holding the position until 2012.

He recorded extensively for Supraphon, Panton and Chandos, and taught at the Prague Academy of Music between 1997 and 2009, with students including Jakub Hrůša, Tomáš Hanus and Tomáš Netopil.

Radio 3 controller Alan Davey said that Bělohlávek’s work with the BBC SO would be remembered as ‘a golden period’ and BBC Symphony Orchestra general manager Paul Hughes described the conductor as an ‘extraordinary man’, adding: ‘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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