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Prominent Czech conductor leads English orchestra in tragic Czech symphony


This Tuesday the Angel of Death alights in Baltimore.

Joseph Suk's gigantic, brooding "Asrael" -- the name of the angel in Muslim mythology who takes away the souls of the dead -- will be performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and its music director Libor Pesek in Meyerhoff Hall. It's rare enough that visiting orchestras come to Baltimore -- this is the first since Sergiu Comissiona brought the Jerusalem Symphony four years ago -- and rarer still that an orchestra brings such an unusual symphony.

But "Asrael," which was written in the decade before World War I by the Czech composer who was Dvorak's son-in-law and heir apparent, has advocates who claim it is nothing less than a masterpiece comparable to the best of Strauss and Mahler. Always popular in Czechoslovakia, this work has now taken Great Britain by storm -- a best-selling record there on the Virgin label by Pesek and the Liverpool has also been selling briskly in this country. And "Asrael" seems ready to place its heavily perfumed kiss on American orchestras.

"Next year the Cleveland Orchestra wants it and [Charles] Dutoit want me to come to Montreal to do it," Pesek says.

Still, as Pesek himself admits, it's daring for a relatively unknown conductor and orchestra to be touring America with what is -- except for the record-buying public -- essentially an unknown work of Mahlerian proportion. (Tuesday's program also includes Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, performed by the popular Garrick Ohlsson.)

"But, maybe, not so crazy," adds Pesek in his fluent, charmingly Czech-accented English. "The time is ripe for this piece. We are once more at the fin de siecle, in a gloomy intellectual atmosphere filled with lyrical sadness that must be very much what it was like when Suk wrote this piece."

Suk had a right to be sad when he wrote "Asrael." In 1904, his

revered teacher and father-in-law, Dvorak had died, and the 30-year-old composer began a memorial piece. But 14 months later -- when he had not yet completed the symphony -- he received a more terrible blow. His adored wife and childhood sweetheart, Otylka -- Dvorak's daughter -- died unexpectedly at the age of 27. Suk was inconsolable. He threw away some of the music and wrote two new movements. Previously something of a salon composer -- his miniatures are played as encore pieces by many violinists -- Suk recast himself as a composer who could work with the tight, relentless logic of Sibelius and whose nightmarish scherzos could compare to those of Mahler. The grim, relentless march that drives the hour-long symphony to its close reminds Pesek of Mahler's Sixth.

"Each of them gives you the feeling that the composer is -- in the Buddhist sense -- already on the other bank," he says. "They are tragic pieces in which the composer seems to have achieved a vision of life that is beyond bitterness and fear."

Pesek possesses something of that Buddha-like detachment himself.

By rights -- he is the pre-eminent Czech conductor of his generation -- one would have expected him to have succeeded Vaclav Neumann as the music director of his country's greatest orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic. But two years ago, when Neumann stepped down after a 20-year tenure, he left the post to the 44-year-old Jiri Belohlavek. Pesek was not disturbed by the decision -- he continues to record and tour with the orchestra -- and he even applauds it.

"My relations with the orchestra are exactly what they should be. I'm only 13 years younger than Neumann and it would have been ridiculous if a man of almost 60 had taken over an orchestra that needed someone younger."

Besides, Pesek is happy in Liverpool, where he became music director in 1986. He is having success there similar to that which Simon Rattle had with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. It was once the case that London -- with its six orchestras -- was the symphonic center of Great Britain. That center of gravity began to change in the middle 1980s, when Rattle's work in Birmingham began to make that city's orchestra perhaps the country's premier ensemble. Now history may be repeating itself in Liverpool, another largely working-class, industrial city, whose orchestra is best-known in this country as the ensemble that commissioned Paul McCartney's "Liverpool Oratorio."

"But there is nothing new about musical excellence in Liverpool," Pesek says. "This orchestra has always attracted good conductors, going back to the days of Mendelssohn and [Max] Bruch."

Certainly, Pesek has reason to be happy in Liverpool. His recordings with the orchestra -- particularly his Dvorak symphony cycle -- have created a tremendous stir. The Liverpool orchestra's only rival as an interpreter of Czech music now LTC seems to be the venerable Czech Philharmonic itself. And Pesek has demonstrated a wide range of sympathies, not the least of which is an unexpected feeling for British composers, particularly for Britten and Elgar.

"There's a certain chastity in British music," Pesek says. "That might be one of the reasons that their music never has spread around the world. Their system of boarding schools might be responsible -- young boys were torn away from their mothers and told how to master the empire. You have to live here a while to understand it."

Pesek apparently has no intention of leaving.

"I do want to stay here -- there will be very little jet-setting for me -- to be a music director who stays with his orchestra, just as it used to be in the old days," he says. "If the situation remains dynamic here, I have no other plans. I wouldn't want another orchestra."

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