OBITUARY: Zdenek Kosler

Zdenek Kosler was a most eminent Czech conductor who, although he seldom reached British shores - largely because of his known stance against the Communist regime - was known to many in Britain through his recordings; while those who visited Prague could hear him there, even up to the end of last year, in both concert hall and opera-house.

It is no mere sentiment on the news of his death that causes one to write that he was a much-loved figure in Czech musical life, because it was so true. He gave himself unstintingly to Czech music and to Czech musicians: a man without show; loyal and true but tenacious also concerning the highest musical standards.

He was born in Prague into a musical family, his father being a member of the opera orchestra at the National Theatre where the son later achieved some of his greatest successes. From early lessons with his father and singing in the Kuhn Children's Choir, more formal musical studies started, only to be interrupted in 1944 when the young Kosler was deported to a Nazi concentration camp.

After the Second World War he returned to his studies and entered the Prague Academy of Musical Arts, studying composition with Otakar Jeremias and Jaroslav Ridky, as well as piano with Erna Grunfeldova. His conducting studies began with Pavel Dedecek, continuing at the Academy with Metod Dolezil, Robert Brock and Karel Ancerl, of which the last was to have the greatest influence upon him for the rest of his life.

From these student years he was repetiteur of the Prague Philharmonic Choir (then the Czech Choir), being appointed to a similar post at the National Theatre in 1948. He moved to the opera house, and in 1951 made his conducting debut there with Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia. However, he never lost touch with the concert platform and in this same year he conducted the Prague Symphony (FOK) Orchestra for the first time. Thanks to Vaclav Smetacek, that orchestra's chief conductor from 1942 to 1972, Kosler was invited to work regularly there and enjoyed a particularly successful period between 1964 and 1967. International recognition came after his winning the conducting competition at Besancon in 1956 and the Mitropoulos competition in New York in 1963, the latter bringing him an assistantship with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for one year.

Continuing with the National Theatre, Kosler toured with the opera to Moscow in 1955 and to Brussels in 1958, though he was not included among the conductors with the company on the visits to the Edinburgh Festival in 1964 and 1970. At the time of the earlier visit he was out of Prague, having been appointed artistic director of the opera at Olomouc from 1958 to 1962 and then at Ostrava from 1962 to 1966. In 1966 he was invited by Walter Felsenstein to become director of the Komische Oper in Berlin, a post he held for the next two years.

In 1971 Kosler moved to Bratislava as director of the opera of the Slovak National Theatre until 1976, in 1971 also starting his association with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra as a guest conductor which continued up until November last year. It was in the 1970s that he came to London and made some recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra but sadly gave no public concerts. In 1980 he was appointed director of the National Theatre Opera, in Prague, and began a difficult period of striving to rebuild the standards of the opera-house. He remained there until 1984, during which time he conducted a complete cycle of Smetana operas as well as the centenary and re-opening of the renovated theatre on 8 November 1983 with Smetana's Libuse.

Increasingly Kosler's name became known abroad, from his debut at the Vienna Staatsoper with Strauss's Salome in 1965 to his great popularity with Japanese orchestras in recent years. His work over the years on behalf of contemporary music was significant and included conducting the Prague premiere of Prokofiev's Symphony No 6, as well as championing the music of his fellow Czechs. He was made an Artist of Merit in 1974 and later National Artist, even though he did not support the political masters of the time.

But it was the music of Smetana and Dvorak that were most dear to Kosler and in the post-1989 period he augmented the orchestra of the National Theatre as the Czech National Symphony Orchestra to give concerts of Dvorak's works. In 1991, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Dvorak, he generously invited all visiting 30 members of the British Dvorak Society, of which he had been an honorary member for many years and later a Vice-President, who were in Prague at the time, to attend his concerts with this orchestra.

In 1993 he was operated on for cancer but made a determined and fighting recovery to enable him to conduct the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra at the 1994 Prague Spring Festival, the orchestra with which he had scored success with Smetana's Ma Vlast to open the 1992 Festival. Although he had never had the happiest of relationships with that orchestra, his last concert with them in November 1994 seemed to put all those problems behind them and the orchestra gave him magnificent support in a concert of Smetana's Triumphal Symphony and Strauss's Eine Alpensinfonie, both captured on record by Supraphon.

Kosler was never happier than in the opera pit directing Smetana's Dalibor or Libuse or Dvorak's Jakobin. In December last year he was very keen that I should attend what was to be his last appearance in the pit of the National Theatre, conducting Jakobin. Sitting with his wife Jana, his constant companion and support at all his performances over their long life together, we could only marvel at the dedication and stamina of a man already so very ill. At each interval he insisted that we join him over coffee, refusing to rest but wanting to talk enthusiastically about Dvorak's opera.

To Zdenek Kosler was given the task by Supraphon of making the first new recording of a Czech opera since the Velvet Revolution, and his favourite, Dalibor, was chosen. By the time of the recording sessions he was having periods in hospital but such was his determination to finish the work, he was transported by ambulance for the last five sessions.

To him should have fallen the conducting of the new production of Libuse at the National Theatre this May. By now very weak, he did come to the opening night but remained seated in his box. When I visited him in one interval, he grabbed my arm and said, "I finished the Dalibor." This recording will be released in September and should be a worthy memorial to him.

Artistic standards were important to him and he would refuse to conduct scheduled opera performances if the singers he felt were necessary to do justice to a work were not available. Likewise, he was highly critical of the present controversial situation with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, believing that hope for Czech orchestral standards lay with Jiri Belohlavek. His unselfish support for younger Czech musicians in whom he recognised true talent and ability was an endearing quality. His own deeply felt interpretations, often characterised by his expansive and unhurried approach to the music, place him forever in that line of great Czech conductors begun by Vaclav Talich and Karel Ancerl, continued through Vaclav Smetacek and handed on to Libor Pesek and Jiri Belohlavek.

One of Zdenek Kosler's greatest pleasures in his last weeks was to know that the post at the head of the national opera would pass to Belohlavek in 1998, the post once held by himself and where his musical heart lay.

Graham Melville-Mason

Zdenek Kosler, conductor and musical director: born Prague 25 March 1928; married Jana Svobodova; died Prague 2 July 1995.

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