On Tuesday, the Royal Opera House in London announced the appointment of Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša as its new music director starting in the 2025-26 season, replacing Antonio Pappano. Hrůša is coming from the Bamberger Symphoniker, a Bavarian orchestra with an excellent reputation, which he will continue to lead until the end of the same season. (It hasn’t been decided yet whether Hrůša will stay on in Bamberg after that, artistic director Marcus Rudolf Axt told me.) Among the biggest musical institutions, the 2022-23 concert season has been marked by a certain post-COVID conservatism, with even orchestras and opera houses known for good curation hewing to big names, famous works, and lots and lots of Wagner. The Royal Opera House is better than some, with works by Kaija Saariaho (“Innocence”) and Berg’s “Wozzeck” on its main stage, and new operas by Oliver Leith (“Last Days”) and Laura Bowler (“The Blue Woman”) appearing in the smaller Linbury Theatre. Still, against this backdrop, Covent Garden’s appointment of Hrůša—an outstanding musician but not a blockbuster name—is an excellent choice.
Hrůša, who is from Brno, where Leoš Janáček spent the bulk of his career, is a thoughtful and persuasive advocate of Czech music. This repertoire is rich and diverse; it has big hits but also underrated gems. Hrůša is capable of finding depth and reinstating context in the Czech standard repertoire. His 2008 recording of Janáček’s “Taras Bulba” thankfully refuses to smooth out the bite typical of that great composer’s orchestration. But Hrůša is also aware of the piece’s Russian imperialist undertones. “It’s our task to find the fine line between not bothering anyone with the garbage of nationalism, but also not stealing the power from the piece,” he told Hartmut Welscher in VAN. The same is true of Bedřich Smetana’s cycle “Má vlast,” which Hrůša surveyed sensitively on a 2017 recording, and of which he noted: “In secure times, its meaning seems almost like a burden—but at times when the Czech people feel something politically is really rotten, it becomes a symbol of cultural identity.” Hrůša can also illuminate the lesser-known repertoire. A 2013 recording of two Sinfoniettas and the Piano Concerto No. 3 by Ladislav Kubík, who died in 2017, showcases the brooding mystery of the composer’s work. His interpretations of Bohuslav Martinů pieces highlight the broad appeal of an artist with a niche, eccentric reputation.
Hrůša is popular with musicians. He has the rare ability to rehearse meticulously and rigorously without being a jerk about it. Angelos Kritikos, principal trombonist with the Bamberger Symphoniker, told me that Hrůša “brought the orchestra to the next level.” Hrůša is a perfectionist, but the atmosphere in the orchestra is usually relaxed—unless the conductor isn’t satisfied, in which case he pursues his musical goals persistently. “That’s what you want from a music director,” Kritikos said.
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In the summer of 2021, I attended an open dress rehearsal Hrůša led with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38, “Prague.” Obviously, open rehearsals are not the best places to judge a conductor’s behavior. But Hrůša didn’t just run it and pack it up—he audibly improved details of phrasing and balance, working carefully and methodically. Still, he’s not a “control freak,” said trumpet player Noémi Makkos, who was in the orchestra that year. “He rehearses very thoroughly and then he lets you play quite freely at the concert.” Kritikos agreed: “It’s unbelievable how he lets go in performance. You have to keep watching him, because he might do things completely differently” than in rehearsal. Violinist and conductor Roberto González-Monjas said that Hrůša “invites everyone to be a part of the creative process.” That will be particularly valuable at a huge institution like the Royal Opera House, where the conductor doesn’t necessarily have the final say.
In a recent interview, Hrůša told The Guardian that he plans to perform the standard repertoire “with the best possible care” in London, maintaining the Italian operas that Pappano brought to the Royal Opera House while introducing more works in Czech. It’s unlikely that he will do anything less than an excellent job. But there are more question marks about how well his tenure will serve contemporary opera. Hrůša also told The Guardian, “When people go to performances they must not feel that they are entering a museum. They must be entering an institution which is with them in their lives and connected to reality.” Although the Royal Opera House revealed that Hrůša would conduct his first full “Ring” cycle in 2027-28 and works by Janáček, Prokofiev and Britten in his first season in 2025-26, it did not give any information about possible commissions or new productions of existing contemporary operas. “Commissioning needs to be a team decision,” Hrůša said, and while that’s pragmatically true, it would be more satisfying to hear a specific aesthetic vision for this essential part of any house’s programming. It’s also not clear yet what opera directors Hrůša will be interested in working with; nor has he outlined an approach to diversity among composers performed—an issue that has much greater urgency in cosmopolitan London than in Bamberg.
Still, it is encouraging that the Royal Opera House has appointed a music director who is emphatically a conductor and not an old-school maestro. At 41, Hrůša is young by the standards of his profession—unlike Klaus Mäkelä, the 26-year-old music director designate of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, he has enough life experience to stand a chance of successfully leading a large and complex organization. Hopefully, he’ll be able to bring the Royal Opera House to the next level, too. ¶
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