Obituary: Jiří Bělohlávek, Internationally Known Conductor, Dies at 77

By Katharine Baran

Last Thursday, the honored and beloved conductor Jiří Bělohlávek passed away at the age of 71 after a long battle with an illness. He was in the midst of a five-year contract that he had just recently renewed with the Czech Philharmonic.

The Prague native spent most of the early years of his career in Czechoslovakia.  In 1970 he won the Czech National Conducting Competition.  Subsequently, he served as the assistant conductor of the Czech Philharmonic for two years.  Then, in 1977, he became the chief director of the Prague Symphony Orchestra and stayed there for over a decade.

In 1992 he left the Philharmonic, then founded the Prague Philharmonia in 1993, leading the orchestra in numerous high-profile events, including a televised performance at the BBC Proms in 2004. In 1997, he was appointed principal guest conductor of the Prague National Theatre, the nation’s most important opera house at the center of the cultural life in the city.

International Career

Bělohlávek’s international career started in 1995, when the BBC Symphony Orchestra appointed him as the group’s principal guest conductor. He returned to the title in 2000.  In February 2005, the BBC named him the Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor, and his tenure began the first night of Proms in 2006.

BBCSO extended his contract until 2012, making Bělohlávek the first non-native English speaker to lead the last night of Proms.  That same year, Bělohlávek assumed the role of conductor laureate with the BBCSO and received an honorary CBE “for services to music.”

The Return

In 2010 he returned to the Czech Philharmonic and continued there until the day he passed away. His concert career took him to many stages all around the world with the Berlin Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra, among others, performing works by Dvořák, Smetana, and Martinů.

Bělohlávek frequently appeared at international opera houses like the Met, Covent Garden, the Paris Opera, and Glyndebourne, where in 2003 and 2007 he led soprano Nina Stemme in performances that shaped her career. Making his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2004, Mr. Bělohlávek led “Kát’a Kabanová,” which featured Karita Mattila in the title role.

He was known for his beautiful lyricism in productions such as “Jenůfa” and “The Makropoulos Case” (both featuring Mattila), “Rusalka,” and “Eugene Onegin.” Bělohlávek was one of the most creative and captivating conductors, who made each one of his concerts or productions a story filled with enthralling emotions.