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Jakub Hrusa

  • Conductor

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Jakub Hrusa press reviews

2010 - Financial Times

Young, gifted and Czech

By Laura Battle

February 11 2010

It’s mid-January and Glyndebourne looks a shadow of its usual self. Instead of picture-postcard flowerbeds and the al fresco spirit of the summer festival, the opera house is gripped by winter: a low mist hangs over the estate, sheep huddle amid clumps of thawing snow and the bare landscape is brightened by a weak and watery light.

At first glance the company appears to be in hibernation, but even at this time of year there is a sense of quiet but purposeful industry within the theatre buildings, and a buzz of activity round the newly appointed music director of Glyndebourne on Tour, Jakub Hrusa, who is just beginning his tenure.

Having screeched in late the night before on a delayed flight from Prague (Gus Christie, executive chairman at Glyndebourne, had to greet him in his dressing-gown), the young Czech conductor is launching into cast meetings and practical tasks as plans for the coming season gather pace. We find time to talk, however, over lunch in the staff restaurant, where Hrusa muses on the unusual set-up of this opera company.

“I think it’s quite extraordinary the way the Christies do this, opening their home to such a variety of people,” he says. “Everyone staying in the house gathers in the kitchen, which feels like a proper country kitchen, and it becomes a real melting-pot of ideas and friendships.”

Hrusa made his Glyndebourne debut in 2008, turning heads with a handful of quicksilver performances of Carmen, which he went on to tour that autumn. Critics wrote excited reviews and the in-house team were clearly impressed.

Traditionally, budding conductors couldn’t hope to be taken seriously until well into their 30s but more recently, companies have started to welcome exceptionally talented young musicians. Glyndebourne is no exception: Hrusa is 28 years old and his immediate predecessor, Robin Ticciati, was just 23 when he was offered the role. Already Hrusa has held some distinguished posts, associate conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra among them, but he agrees that the context here is unique. “Sometimes I don’t feel comfortable if it’s an old institution with much older and [more] experienced leaders,” he admits, “but I feel appropriate here. It’s a very youthful, friendly place to work.”

Of course, the touring wing presents challenges of its own. “It’s very easy to get immersed in this fantastic world at Glyndebourne and to expect certain things from the audiences here,” Hrusa explains. “On tour, however, you go to many different places and the ensemble can easily get preoccupied by everyday difficulties rather than artistic concerns, so I think the main task of the music director is to offer never-ending support and enthusiasm.”

Certainly, the role involves much more than the public appearances on the podium, and I ask Hrusa to elaborate on his working methods. “When I was here in 2008 everyone explained to me the profits and the limits of the touring orchestra. It’s not the London Philharmonic Orchestra, of course, but I was pleasantly surprised,” he replies. “At the same time, I saw a lot of things to improve, which is normal. I wasn’t easy, I didn’t say every note was fantastic – that’s not my way – but because we worked in a gentle way and because there was a spark between us I knew it would work.”

In addition to his Carmen, Hrusa won another British audience over with his vibrant performance of Carmina Burana, Carl Orff’s “scenic cantata”, at London’s Barbican last year with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This summer he will share conducting duties with Vladimir Jurowski for Jonathan Kent’s new production of Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne before taking the production on tour. Since September, he has also been music director and chief conductor of the Prague Philharmonia, and he continues to live in the Czech Republic.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hrusa feels a natural affinity with the music of his homeland and this repertoire has characterised his recording career so far; over the past few years he has recorded orchestral works by Dvorak, Janacek and Josef Suk. Hrusa grew up in Brno and although none of his family members is a professional musician, he speaks admiringly of his great-grandfather, “a village musician who could play any instrument, a very practical man”, and still feels a strong connection to such traditions. “I like the purity of folk music, even if it’s very rough, and if it sounds right, if it sounds true, my emotions can break.”

As a child he learnt the trombone at grammar school before deciding to pursue a career in conducting and continuing his studies at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. It was there that he came into contact with Jiri Belohlavek, currently chief conductor of the BBCSO and a Glyndebourne regular, who was to become an inspiring figure for him. “Often you have school-like teachers who have little experience of the life of a real artist, or you have top conductors organising intense but very short courses, but he always found a huge amount of time for the academy,” Hrusa says.

Now Hrusa considers his former mentor to be “primarily a great friend of mine”, but he admits that a certain stamp of influence is inevitable. “He is serious about everything, sometimes he is criticised for being too serious,” Hrusa says, “but I like it, it’s honest.” The young conductor admits that “from the outside I can be seen as a workaholic”, and he comes across as measured and deeply thoughtful – indeed, he has barely touched the food in front of him during our discussion. Clearly Hrusa is not interested in quick-fix fame but rather the long-term benefits of diligence and hard work: “The rewards I get from this post are only equal to what I bring.”