Deep sadness as Czech maestro dies

Deep sadness as Czech maestro dies


norman lebrecht

October 24, 2022

The inspirational Czech conductor Libor Pesek died last night in hospital in Prague. He was 89.

Libor lit up Liverpool like no musician since the Beatles.

Arriving as principal conductor in 1987, he found a demoralised orchestra in a depressed city and transformed the mood within months. No-one knew how he did it but a smile returned to musicians’ faces in rehearsal and it broadened afterwards around the bar. He was, at one level, convivial and collegial and, at another, instantly uplifting.

He started with a Mahler cycle that grew into one of the most compelling of its time. He performed Suk’s Asrael, a Czech masterpiece pratically unknown abroad, as well as the Dvorak symphonies, some Bruckner, much Brahms. In his suitcase he took Elgar and Vaughan Williams back to Prague. His performance of Britten’s Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes is engraved in memory. He made numerous recordings.

The whole city took him to its heart. At the Adelphi Hotel I saw him embraced by dockworkers and pub drinkers. We talked deep into the night and sealed a profound friendship. He was music director in Liverpool from 1987 to 1998, departing in tears when the orchestra ran into administrative and other difficulties.

Born in Prague on June 22, 1933, he had vivid memories of the German occupation and maintained a quirky independence under Communist totalitarianism. Aside from Liverpool, he held posts with the Prague Symphony and the Czech National Symphony orchestras. From 1981 to 1990 he was a regular guest with the Czech Philharmonic. In later years he was involved with the Slovak Philharmonic in Bratislava. His laconic humour was not always translatable.

Heavens, he will be missed.

Our warmest sympathies to his son Philip, his partner Jarmila and all the family. We understand there will be no funeral, just a private gathering in his Prague garden. So Libor.

UPDATE: First tributes here.

Sandra Roberts of the RLPO adds:
It is with deep sadness that we learnt that our “colleague” Libor Pešek KBE died yesterday in Prague. Without doubt he lifted the RLPO to international heights whilst principal conductor for ten seasons from 1987. I remember clearly my first tour with the Orchestra in October 1988, when he took the Orchestra to Prague and to quote him, “to show off his new love” to his home city. Taking an orchestra pre-Velvet Revolution was no easy task but his determination won, and it was a great success. From there the happy relationship between Libor and Liverpool grew.
His famous quips in rehearsals were collected by musicians and printed in a collection called “Linguistic Gems and Quotations”. In fact, even today the occasional quote can be found scribbled inside some of the RLPO music parts. He conducted for over 70 years and said one of his proudest moments was when he took the RLPO to be the first non-Czech orchestra to open the Prague Spring Festival. His parties were as much a highlight of any tour as the concerts that he gave with the RLPO around Europe, America and Asia. The recordings they made together are still played today and he introduced much hitherto unknown Czech music into the veins of Liverpool Philharmonic. In 1992 he insisted that the repertoire for the American tour include Suk’s Asrael Symphony, not a popular choice according to the tour agents but he won the audiences on the East Coach of the US over with his commitment to the work. His philosophy for life was basically to enjoy it and share that enjoyment with friends. He addressed everyone as colleague in a most warm, friendly way that everyone who met him liked him immediately. A humble man who adored his dogs and Land Rovers, and since retiring from conducting at the age of 85, grew closer to nature more each year. He last conducted in Liverpool for his 80th birthday in June 2013 and gave over 300 concerts with the Orchestra in Liverpool and worldwide.


  • We privatize your value says:

    Rest in peace, and thank you. “Asrael” is, luckily enough, less and less unknown abroad. Petrenko is championing it with every orchestra he conducts, including the BPO. What is really no enough known abroad are the symphonies of Zdeněk Fibich, especially the 3rd.

  • Lawrence Kershaw says:

    As a scouser I can only echo the words that both have written here. I was fortunate to both hear and meet him on several occasions and all were memorable. I’m not sure that it’s possible to think of another conductor whose sole aim – ahead of any ego – was to serve the music that he was playing.
    In my experience – since the mid-70s – I think that only Simon at the CBSO rivals Libor’s Liverpool years as the greatest partnership between conductor and orchestra outside of London.

    • Gareth Morrell says:

      I echo your comments – I only collaborated with him once, and it was memorable for his selfless interest in the music above all else, and he was a true gentleman to boot.

  • MacroV says:

    I never managed to hear him with the Czech National Symphony when I lived in Prague (they seemed to tour abroad primarily) but I’ve long treasured his recording of Asrael with the RLPO.

  • David Hyslop says:

    It was my pleasure to work with Libor with both the St. Louis Symphony and the Minnesota Orchestra. He was a first class musician and a great person with a
    great sense of humor .

  • Herbie G says:

    What a sad loss. A marvellous conductor whose huge recorded legacy will testify to his mastery for those who didn’t see him live and for future generations. RIP.

  • Peter San Diego says:

    A sad loss of a wonderful musician and Mensch. From the memorials, it sounds like he belonged in the small group of great conductors and humans — Walter, Giulini, Kertesz…

    Is there any chance of his collected witticisms being published?

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Norman, you picked the very two items I’d pick as exemplary excerpts of Libor Pesek’s best recordings. I saw him with the S.F. Symphony twice. One of those times had the Dvorak 6th symphony (a favorite of mine). He was terrific.

  • JohnG says:

    LP’s advocacy of Suk on record (Virgin Classics) strikes me as very important – the recording of Asrael made an indelible impression on me. Also released on Virgin was a Mahler 9 with the RLPO which was recorded at roughly the same time as these forces performed it on a trip down south to the Royal Festival Hall. I was sat in the choir seats and remember the strength of the connection between orchestra and conductor, and excellence of the result. The studio recording I think also captures that.

  • Linda Finnie International Mezzo-soprano. says:

    International Mezzo-soprano Linda Finnie…It was my privilege to work with Maestro Pesek in wonderful concerts of Mahler Song Cycles…with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in Liverpool, and Czech Philharmonic in Prague.

  • Christopher Zimmerman says:

    This makes me very sad. What a lovely man Libor was. In 1985 I went to Prague for 10 months on a British Council Scholarship to study with Vaclav Neumann and the Czech Phil. Libor, along with Jiri Belohlavek, was an associate conductor of the orchestra. Immediately, and more than anyone else, Libor took me under his wing, gave me conducting lessons and advice, supported and encouraged me tirelessly, patiently; all with his amazing warmth, humility and graciousness.
    Although we saw each other less and less over the past decades, his continual generosity of spirit kept him very close to me.
    What a guy.

  • christopher storey says:

    During his Liverpool days, I knew Libor quite well from fairly frequent communal dining with him at the long table in Piero’s Italian Bistro opposite the Phil Hall . I also quite by coincidence gave him a Trial Flying lesson ( one of his original ambitions had been to be a fighter pilot !) . A quite lovely man, and an outstanding musician . RIP Libor Pesek