Pianist Jan Simon on Dvořák, Tchaikovsky and what he was doing when he was ‘sweet sixteen’


My guest today in One on One is concert pianist and director of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra Jan Simon. Simon has studied with some of the great pianists including compatriot Ivan Moravec in Prague and the Uruguayan-born Homero Francesch in Zurich. He also trained in Berlin before becoming the youngest ever soloist in residence of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1994. When I met him to bask in the sun on his balcony, Jan Simon started by telling me about his musical family background:

“My father [Ladislav Simon] is a pianist, he graduated from the Prague Academy of Arts, where he studied with Professor František Rauch in the middle of the 1950s. It was quite natural that from my childhood I was following music. Although, I have to say that it was not always classical music, because my father founded a jazz band within the National Theatre in Prague, which was quite successful and I spent a lot of time in this orchestra’s rehearsals when I was six or seven years old. But, my father was the person who followed my whole career, my musical education, and he is my life-long advisor for my career as a musician.”

So was it clear to you when you were six or seven and sitting in on these rehearsals, and playing piano at home, that you wanted to be a musician, and a classical musician at that?

“I decided when I was about 15-16 after I did the entrance exam for the Prague Conservatory. At that time I was still not yet decided, because I was interested in physics and mathematics. And, aged 16, I took part in the Chopin competition in Mariánské Lázně and during the preparation for this competition, I lost my goal to win the competition and I found another, probably more important, goal, which was to follow music. I started to understand what music was about and since then, I changed my life and started to work quite hard with the piano, I spent a lot of time practicing. Maybe I wasn’t able to experience everything connected to being sweet sixteen, but on the other hand I found something that could fulfill my life, and I have the feeling that it still can.”

How do you think musicians are valued in this country compared to elsewhere? Are Czech musicians paid enough? Do they get the respect they deserve? What is being a musician like here compared to, say, being a musician in Germany?

“Principally I would have to say that, as far as society’s acceptance of musicians is concerned, I think that the position of Czech musicians is quite good when compared to Germany or other European countries, that’s leaving out the United States. But you know, you have to live on something, and to live by honour and appreciation alone is impossible. So you have to think about your sources of funding, and on that point I would have to say that the value of musicians, or how they are paid in general – it doesn’t concern just our orchestra, the Prague Radio Symphony, it concerns Prague Symphony FOK and the Czech Philharmonic as well – our society is not able to appreciate really correctly what it means to be a cultural nation, to provide this kind of ‘service’, even though I don’t like this word in connection with music.”

Can you tell me about your relationship with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra?

“I started to cooperate with the orchestra in 1989 when I recorded a piano concerto by my father with the orchestra. I didn’t mention that my father is principally a composer now, and has been for the last 40, 50 years. In 1994, I was appointed the soloist in residence of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra and in 2001, I got an offer from the chief conductor to become executive director of the orchestra, which means mostly to fulfill the orchestra’s schedule for the concert season, and to organise concert tours abroad. It is very enjoyable work, very exciting, and to work with 110 musicians, 110 individuals, it is not always easy, but the confrontations with the opinions of these musicians, very often very reasonable opinions, it is very inspiring. And then it comes back into my own piano work. And I would say that if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it.”

Can you tell me what you have got planned for this season?

“The concert season, the subscription season is coming on September 7, with the opening concert for our subscribers. And then other concerts follow. Another very important thing for us is the organisation of the international music festival ‘Radio Autumn’, to which we have invited three foreign orchestras, and the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra will play two of the concerts, including the festival’s closing concert. Then we have a tour of Germany, where we will play in Munich and Frankfurt, then a tour of Belgium and the Netherlands is scheduled for March next year. So there are a couple of things to do.”

I was wondering if you maybe had an explanation for why Czech music is so popular abroad and why it travels so well? Don’t you think that Czech music has some sort of particular allure that other countries’ music does not?

“I am not so sure that we should talk about Czech music, because especially Dvořák is a phenomenon on his own. This kind of artist really transcends the borders of language, of musical language. And this is also the case with Tchaikovsky. Okay, he can be named as a typical representative of Russian music. A more connective element might be the Slavonic element. Both of them, Dvořák and Tchaikovsky, they were very inventive, and this is something that could talk to the audience, and not only what could, but what definitely does. I am not so sure that people think about Czechs, I think they think about Dvořák, and I think that this cosmopolitan way of thinking was very important for artists like him, like Janáček, like Martinů, like Smetana. And that is why people attend these concerts, because they find the music very enjoyable and inspiring, and it doesn’t matter from which country it comes.”