Death of a major conductor, 71

Death of a major conductor, 71


norman lebrecht

June 01, 2017

The death was announced today of Jiří Bělohlávek, chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic and former chief of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.  Jiří, who was 71, had been suffering from cancer for a considerable time.

His final recording, for Decca, was Dvorak’s Requiem.

I knew him well in the immediate post-Communist era when, in 1990, he was elected music director of the Czech Philharmonic and, two years later, was dumped by the players in favour of a provincial German conductor who came promising gifts of Sony recordings.

Jiří bore both elevation and rejection with equanimity. He lived all his life in Prague and made his career there, never seeking a position in the US that would take him away from home for long periods.

He was a reserved man who shared warmth only with those he eventually trusted. He was a conductor of great sensitivity and subtlety, never showy, often profound.

He will be universally missed.


  • William James Dundas says:

    Great man. Great integrity. Great music!

  • REGERFAN says:

    I was very grateful when he came to Washington DC and conducted the Martinu Symphony #6. Sad to hear this.

    • Ron Payne says:

      I heard that NSO performance as well. Was so good that I bought his cd set with the BBC. How I miss great musicians when they leave us.

  • WSauvage says:

    A great conductor. He will be missed.
    But, Norman, the “provincial conductor” has been head of the Hamburg Opera before for some years and died of cancer in 2014. Whatever happened in Prague, it’s not respectful at all to talk about him that way.

  • Sue says:

    I was very upset to hear this news about this wonderful man!! A great loss. And that he had to suffer this way after providing the world with so much beauty. Vale Maestro.

  • Stuard Young says:

    I feel so fortunate to have heard Behlolavek conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra on two occasions. The Dvorak Violin Concerto with Sarah Chang was wonderful. Martinu’s Frescoes of Piero Della Francesca was a revelation, for my friends in the orchestra as well as the audience, Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony sounded so fresh and natural. I will cherish his Martinu symphony recordings – al of them.

    • Thornhill says:

      I also remember the Philadelphia concert with Martinu’s “Frescoes.” I went to Tower Records the next day to buy a recording of it and one of the clerks there told me someone else had come in earlier to do the same thing!

      I also heard him lead an excellent performance of “The Makropulos Case” at the Met several years ago. Hopefully the radio recording of the performance will be made available.

  • Steven says:

    What a enormous loss. Maestro was so kind to me, allowing me to attend his rehearsals with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on both his visits. I had the opportunity to show him and his wife around Sydney. Although he was never my teacher, he took the time to see me on my visits to Prague, spending time going through scores, answering my questions and allowing me to attend rehearsals with the Czech Phil and the National Opera. A truly generous and gifted man who I will greatly miss. I will dedicate my upcoming performance of Dvorak 9 to his memory. RIP Maestro.

  • Alank says:

    A terrific conductor who will be greatlly missed. Led a very fine production of Jenufa with the Washington Opera and recently brought the excellent Czech Philharmonic to Northern Va. The NSO would have been luck you to have ho him. RIP. Maestro

  • MacroV says:

    I first saw him in 1985, when he conducted Jenufa in Seattle. Speight Jenkins had a knack for identifying terrific but still relatively low-profile conductors, and I believe this was his U.S. debut. I then saw him conduct Jenufa in Washington DC in 2007, along with the NSO. Then three years ago I was posted to Prague, where I have been able to see him conduct the Czech Philharmonic regularly. Not spectacular, but in every instance a great musician who just did it right – Mozart, Dvorak, Janacek (Jenufa yet again), Martinu, Mahler, others. His illness these past two years was no secret and he occasionally cancelled an appearance, but he kept conducting, including a great Mahler 5 just four weeks ago.

  • Mike Schachter says:

    A sad loss of a fine conductor and a great ambassador for Czech music . Awful to see him in recent photos.

  • Jo Stubbs says:

    Truly sad news. RIP maestro.

  • David J. Hyslop says:

    It was my pleasure to work with Jiri during my CEO tenures with both the St. Louis Symphony and the Minnesota Orchestra. He was a great talent and a fine person.

    He will be missed.

  • HugoPreuss says:

    Belohlavek was a great conductor, but to belittle Gerd Albrecht as a “provincial German conductor” is as mean spirited as it is wrong. Outrageously so, on both counts. Albrecht had a distinguished career, and among many other things he had going for him are his championship of contemporary music and esp. music banned from the “Third Reich”. There is no need to celebrate Belohlavek by tearing down another great conductor, esp. one who brought a lot of international visibility to the Czech Philharmonic.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Albrecht, having staged a coup against Belohlavek, fulfilled very few of his commercial and international promises to the musicians. The orchestra, as I observed at the time, had higher international visibility before Albrecht than after.

  • Paul Mauffray says:

    I had the honor to work as assistant conductor to maestro Belohlavek on Janacek’s Jenufa at the Prague National Theatre in 1997 and to meet him again recently. With the loss of this great conductor as well as Sir Charles Mackerras, it appears that more than an entire generation of Czech opera specialists are gone. It is nice to read that he had conducted Jenufa already in Seattle in 1985. Can anyone else confirm what other Janacek operas he conducted before 1997? I believe our Jenufa then might have been his first Janacek opera performed in the Czech Republic (unless maybe he had conducted others outside of Prague?) according to the list in the National Theatre’s online archive:

  • justice for conductors says:

    Gerd Albrecht was an excellent conductor on an international level. he was elected by a majority of the players not by a ‘coup’ .

  • Mark Mortimer says:

    A man of genial humanity and certainly not an old fashioned, egotistical martinet.

    I saw him many times with the BBC SO at the Proms- the orchestra took to him much more than his predecessor Slatkin. Sadly- the results were often extremely boring. For all his personal qualities- so many adequate enough performances- mediocre in their expression & lacking excitement. He was a kindly man- sympathetic accompanist to soloists- but his symphonic interpretations lacked the necessary inner fire and tension to stick in the memory.

    His Czech interpretations were good as naturally expected- perhaps lacking the swagger of a Kubelik for instance. All in all- a nice man & competent enough conductor but without the charisma of a Kleiber or Abbado to take two notable comparisons.

  • Andrey Boreyko says:

    Sad news…
    RIP Maestro!

  • John de Jong says:

    Very sad news.

    Jiří Bělohlávek was also principal guest conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra (since September 2013).

    His very last concert in Rotterdam, was a few weeks ago. He conducted the orchestra in a Dvořák’s Stabat Mater. Listen here:

    It is a week of musical and personal grief in Rotterdam, as the regretted Jeffrey Tate was a former chief conductor of the orchestra.