Shortly before the players of the Czech Philharmonic took the stage at the new Grafenegg Music Festival in Austria this past weekend, their chief conductor told them that he was quitting his job.
Zdenek Mácal made the announcement to his musicians at the end of a rehearsal for the September 8 concert, according to the Czech news agency CTK. He reportedly decided to quit because he was angry over a review in the Prague newspaper Lidové noviny the previous day.
"He is a very emotional man, and he just reacted to the latest review on Friday the way he reacted," Czech Philharmonic executive director Václav Riedlbauch told the agency.
Riedlbauch rejected suggestions that the real reason for Mácal's resignation was a power struggle between the conductor and the orchestra's management. "He will now free his hands a little bit, but he will stay in Prague, will work with the orchestra on planned recording projects, on its foreign tour, and the audiences who love him will definitely have opportunities to see him," Riedlbauch told CTK.
The 71-year-old Mácal, born in Brno, developed a very promising career in Czechoslavakia and abroad as a young man, becoming chief conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra, winning the Besançon conducting competition in 1965 and the Mitropoulos competition in New York in 1966. But he left the country following the Soviet-led invasion in 1968, eventually settling in the U.S., serving as music director of the Milwaukee Symphony (1986-95) and New Jersey Symphony (1993-2002) and guest-conducting dozens of major ensembles. (He has led more than 160 orchestras in his career, according to CTK.)
Mácal's return visit to his homeland to conduct the Czech Philharmonic at the 1996 Prague Spring Festival was considered something of a heroic homecoming. After he became the orchestra's chief conductor in the fall of 2003, he was credited with ending much of the dissension that had plagued the ensemble since the fall of the Communist regime. The Czech Philharmonic was voted one of Europe's top ten orchestras in a critics' poll conducted last year by Le Monde de la Musique.
The newspaper in question argues that the review which so angered Mácal wasn't even overly harsh. According to an English-language press digest by CTK posted on the website of the paper Ceské noviny, Dita Kopácová Hradecká wrote in Lidové noviny yesterday that, "Like all impulsive people, Zdenek Mácal overdid it when he announced his resignation ... [his] career was hardly threatened by the article in question ... If [he] really resigned, he would probably be the first Czech artist to quit as a result of what was actually in no way a horribly critical article."
While the CTK's English- and German-language reports don't indicate what the original review actually said, the German article did point out that Mácal has often been criticized for his conservative tastes in repertoire.
More pointedly, Kopácová Hradecká claimed that critics who write negative reviews of Czech Philharmonic performances "receive mysterious telephone calls asking them what they actually have against the orchestra," according to the CTK digest. She argued that the critics actually love and respect Mácal and his musicians and would prefer, given the opportunity, to write enthusiastic notices.
As emotional people often do, Mácal appears to have calmed down a bit. In an article published today by CTK, Riedlbauch confirmed that the maestro will conduct all his scheduled concerts through the end of his contract next summer, though he has been relieved of administrative tasks. No successor as chief conductor has yet been appointed, though Manfred Honeck will serve as principal guest conductor.