Libor Pešek Obituary

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During his decade from 1987 as conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Czech musician Libor Pešek, who died aged 89, transformed it into an internationally acclaimed ensemble recognized as “the best Czech orchestra this side of Prague”. After being offered the job after just two gigs with the orchestra, he had no conscious intention of changing its sound: “It just had to happen through a spiritual engagement with my colleagues in the orchestra. “

The aim, he said, was not to build a Czech sound but a “Liverpool sound” and fortunately “the combination of British restraint and my Slavic heart on the sleeve seemed to be appealing to our audience. of Liverpool”.

His other major appointment was conductor-in-residence of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra from 1982 to 1990, and a set of Dvořák recordings – symphonies, symphonic poems, suites and overtures – which he made with both orchestras in tandem highlights fascinating contrasts. Where the symphonies recorded with the RLPO (Nos. 1, 3 and 7–9) are incisive and invigorating (the first movement of the seventh, in D minor, is fierce and dark in intensity), those with the Czech Philharmonic bring showcasing a countryman’s instinct to empathize with the bohemian style in its lyrical warmth, charm and cuteness.

Pešek was also a strong supporter of other Czech composers, notably Smetana and Janáček. He also helped establish Josef Suk’s music in the British repertoire. The RLPO recording of Suk’s autobiographical Ripening intuitively captured the transition from the ‘storms of life’ to an atmosphere of calm, while that of the mighty Asrael Symphony also evoked the sympathetic and sensitive playing of the Liverpudlians.

Born in Prague to Anna and Ludvik Pešek, a civil servant, he attended a high school where one of his classmates was Miloš Forman, the Czech-American director, with whom he shared a passion for jazz and with whom he then worked on various projects.

He then studied piano, cello, trombone and conducting at the Academy of Musical Arts in Prague, continuing his conducting studies after graduation with Karel Ančerl, Václav Neumann and Vaclav Smetaček. After a rehearsal experience, first at the Pilsen Opera then at the National Theater in Prague, he launched his career with the Prague Chamber Harmony, a wind orchestra which he founded and directed (1958-1964), and with whom he made several recordings for the Czech label Supraphon and the Sebastian Orchestra of Prague.

Pešek on stage with the CNSO, Prague Proms, 2013.

Pešek on stage with the CNSO, Prague Proms, 2013. Photograph: Stanislav Zbynek/CTK/Alamy

He then became principal conductor of the Czech Chamber Orchestra (1970-1977) and the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra (1980-1981), also holding various positions in the Netherlands in the 1970s. Then came the positions with the prestigious Czech Philharmonic and the Royal Liverpool PO. With Pešek at the helm, the latter was a guest at the BBC Proms for 11 consecutive seasons (1988-1998), including two appearances in 1991 and 1994. These concerts included a performance of Glagolitic Mass by Janáček and the premiere of the Proms by the Asrael Symphony, although the repertoire also includes Mahler, Berlioz, Honegger and others.

He has toured extensively with the orchestra throughout continental Europe, the United States and East Asia. The RLPO was the first non-Czech orchestra to be invited to open the Prague Spring Festival (1993), returning three years later. Pešek remained a laureate conductor after resigning from the main direction.

Other orchestras with which he was linked include the Prague Symphony Orchestra, of which he was principal guest conductor, and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, formed in 1993, of which he was principal conductor from 2007 to 2019. He has also made regular appearances with major London orchestras, the Oslo Philharmonic, Dresden Staatskapelle, Los Angeles Philharmonic and other major orchestras.

A man of somewhat old-fashioned charm and kindness and a sympathetic colleague to his musicians, he demonstrated qualities that undoubtedly shaped his music. A recording of Brahms’ Second Symphony with the LPO (1988), for example, stands out for its sunny warmth and honeyed phrasing. The latter was indeed a trademark of his style, giving rise to generous readings of the mind, lingering with love, even seduction, on poignant harmonies.

A 1995 disc Gershwin made with the Slovak National PO, including Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris, offers an intriguing insight into his early days as a jazz trombonist in a swing band. It was an experience that helped him develop his ear for sound: “I think in a big band, ‘sound’ is almost everything,” he once said.

He was made an honorary KBE in 1996 and received the Czech Medal of Merit (first year) the following year.

He is survived by his partner, Jarmila, and his son, Philip.

Libor Pesek, conductor, born June 22, 1933; died on October 23, 2022

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