By Sigurd Neubauer
Steeped in the Czech musical tradition, Maestro Tomáš Netopil has dedicated his professional career to promoting it internationally.
A former director of the Czech National Opera, Netopil is the Principal Guest Conductor at the Czech Philharmonic where its Principal Conductor is Semyon Bychkov.
A native of the city of Kromeriz, located in the Central Moravian Carpathians, Netopil is also the founder of a music academy there hosted at the Kroměříž Archbishop’s Palace where the famous “Amadeus” film about Mozart’s life and legacy was filmed in 1984. At the palace, the maestro is also hosting an annual summer festival for young artists during the last week of August.
The Kromeriz festival, Netopil explains, is modeled after the Aspen Conducting Academy where he studied under David Zinman, who also became a mentor.
“Zinman taught me to dig into the score, to read about the culture or what was happening at that time to better understand the reasons why the music was composed at the time that it was.”
Representing the next generation of conductors in the Czech Republic, Netopil, 46, sees himself as an ambassador of Czech music and a promoter of Leoš Janáček in particular.
Janáček’s Jenufa and The Cunning Little Vixen “are becoming standard repertoire for opera houses around the world,” he says while adding that Janáček’s music is “transformational”.
“One doesn’t have to understand the Czech language to appreciate Janáček’s operas and storytelling.”
“Czech music is very welcoming; it is beautiful and can attract you immediately. It is full of energy and contains a certain magic for everyone,” Netopil adds.
He points to the Bartered Bride overture by Bedřich Smetana and his Moldau symphonic poem as examples of some of the most beloved pieces in the classical music repertoire.
“Czech music is an essential part of my life. It is something that I grew up with,” says Netopil who is a professional violinist with a particular fondness for Moravian folk music, including of Antonín Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances.
“I am not only conducting Czech music, of course, but it is big part of my repertoire which I am grateful for,” he explains. What Netopil admires most about his country’s musical heritage is its “purity,” especially in Dvořák’s romantic style where its rhythm stands out in polkas and dances.
In the United States, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, also popularly known as From the New World, is particularly beloved.
As a conductor, Netopil’s values are anchored in the belief that he is not there for the audience, but rather for the orchestra. “We [the conductors] should always be humble and pay absolute fidelity to the score as the composer has intended,” he says while emphasizing that he “doesn’t like when the conductor makes a show”.
Instead, Netopil sees his role as ensuring that the orchestra feels “secure,” to motivate and inspire its musicians with bigger or smaller gestures and sometimes to surprise them “but always in a good way”.
“Conducting is not about being a policeman,” Netopil asserts.
Netopil, whose mother was an amateur jazz singer and father a violinist and guitarist playing blues, recalls how his father told him when he was eight years old: “You will play the violin”.
Next, his father would sit with him every day to ensure that he was practicing. “I began to like it after a few years,” he says with a laugh. Another mentor was his music teacher, with whom he studied from the age of 16 to 20. “We’re still in contact and remain close friends,” Netopil adds.
For conducting, celebrated Maestro Jiří Bělohlávek became Netopil’s ultimate mentor. Bělohlávek (1946-2017) was a leading interpreter of Czech classical music and became Principal Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic in 1990, a position he held until his death.
Netopil’s favorite piece is Johannes Brahms’ violin concerto, he reveals.
Netopil describes the transition from a violinist to conducting as “a smooth one,” adding that he knew early on that he wanted to pursue a career in conducting. Netopil acknowledges, however, that he does not conduct from the violin.
Classical music as a genre is very much celebrated throughout the Czech Republic where it is taught in elementary school and available to anyone interested. “The Czech people are highly educated in classical music. For a small country we have many orchestras, eleven musical conservatories, twenty-three professional orchestras, including opera orchestras,” Netopil says.
He adds that opera is just as popular as classical music in the Czech Republic.
When he’s not on the podium – whether it is rehearsing or performing concerts – Netopil belongs to a flying club in his native city of Kromeriz.
“The airport is three minutes from my home,” Netopil says while adding that he tries to fly as often as possible to make sure he retains the skills.
He brings his two teenage daughters and mother with him when he flies but clarifies. “My wife is still on the waiting list,” Netopil says with a laugh. He hopes she will be able to join him later this summer.
Netopil is also an avid sailor and plans to sail for a week this summer with his family around the Adriatic Ocean, off Croatia.
His hobbies – and flying in particular – is more aspirational than reality, Netopil says as he acknowledges that his conducting career has become all consuming.
He finds relief in flying and sailing from where he draws inspiration from its rules, discipline and the freedom. Netopil likes being connected to nature through sailing and flying.