A few days ago I learned that Jiri Belohlavek had died. I actually heard the news one month to the day since I had seen him conduct the Czech Philharmonic at Prague's Rudolfinum, in a masterful performance of Mozart's Violin Concerto No 5 featuring Nikolaj Znaider and Mahler's Symphony No 5. I hadn't known he was sick, although it was clear when I saw him in Prague that he was recovering from a serious illness: he had lost so much weight and the trademark chock-full of hair I had grown accustomed to seeing, from picking up my favorite CD set [the Complete Dvorak Symphonies and Concertos, with cover pictured to the left], had disappeared.
Since his contract with the Czech Philharmonic had been renewed earlier this year, I hoped that his illness was behind me and that I would be able to attend another concert by him were I to return to Prague, which I hope to, some day. In fact I chose the dates of this trip to attend a performance by Belohlavek. That was one of my requirements: I would not go all the way to Prague for my first trip ever without attending a performance by the maestro with the Czech Philharmonic. And I'm just so glad I made it happen. The concert was almost sold-out when I bought the ticket, the same evening I booked the plane tickets and the hotel. I will always cherish the memories of that concert.
Belohlavek has done so much to raise the profile of Czech music and the Czech Philharmonic. Thanks to him I discovered much great Czech music I didn't know before, such as Martinu's Piano Concertos. His Dvorak moved me like no other conductor's can, and it is only fitting that I am listening to the CD1 of his Dvorak's Symphonies (Symphony 1 and Cello Concerto featuring Alisa Weilerstein) as I type this. I don't remember being so stunned and sad by the passing of someone I didn't know personally since the death of David Halberstam, ten years ago. But we can all be grateful for what he did to advance classical music.
A side note about the New York Times and Washington Post obituaries, available here and here, respectively. I have included screenshots below. The NYT went with an older picture of Belohlavek (from 2008), which would be familiar to the music amateurs around the world who own his records. In it he is strong and vigorous. It resembles the one on the cover of my Dvorak Symphonies set. The one in the WaPo obituary is more recent, and matches the Belohlavek I saw when I went to Prague. There isn't much resemblance between the two, is it? And I was thinking, I doubt he wants us to remember him with the WaPo picture. But I will always remember him from the covers of his CDs anyway.
Finally, I have to wonder if he already knew he was about to die when he gave that concert of Mozart and Mahler at the Rudolfinum. He looked frail, but his conducting was not frail. I remember the enormous standing ovation we gave him at the end - Europeans, contrary to Americans, are much more parsimonious in their acclaim, but everyone was on their feet - and how touched he was when he faced us, even bringing his hand to his heart. My opinion (without proof) is that he knew, but music carried him forward as long as it could. "Music is my life," the WaPo reports him to have said. I hope he knew how much we love him and are grateful to him for making music our lives too.