“The Moldau,” Bedrich Smetana’s evocative musical portrait of the Bohemian river, ranks among the best loved and most frequently performed works in the orchestral repertoire. Though most often heard on its own, it is actually the second in a set of six symphonic poems known as Má vlast (My Fatherland), which the Czech composer wrote in 1874-79. “It is basically a complete item of symphonic repertoire, which I compare in uniqueness to things like The Ring [of the Nibelung] in the operatic world,” said Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša. 

In what will mark his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Hrůša will lead complete performances of Má vlast on May 18-20. “It’s something that I know profoundly and is part of my upbringing and really in my blood, and it’s something that hasn’t been played in Chicago for decades,” he said. The CSO last performed the complete Má vlast in 1983 in Orchestra Hall and in 1987 at the Ravinia Festival.

Hrůša was thrilled when the orchestra suggested he lead Má vlast, because he believes that it is an ideal showcase for his CSO debut and that the work will appeal to audiences as well. “I really feel it can be an extraordinary event,” he said. He is confident that the familiarity of “The Moldau” will help overcome listeners’ potential apprehension about the less familiar set of symphonic poems as a whole. “If someone has any doubts about how to open him or herself to the whole cycle, at that moment when the second piece comes, which is somewhere around 15 minutes into the whole evening, everyone melts,” he said.

Jakub Hrůša has recorded Má vlast twice, including this version with the Prague Philharmonia.

The conductor has recorded Má vlast twice, including a version with the Bamberg Symphony; released last fall, the album coincided with his assumption of the post of chief conductor of the German orchestra. He was drawn to the high quality and friendliness of the orchestra and the beauty and serenity of the Bavarian city, which has an intact medieval core that was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. A further plus was its location, about a three-hour drive from his home in the Czech Republic. “If you take all this into account, it seems like an ideal situation that no one would resist,” he said.

In addition to Hrůša’s position in Bamberg, he also serves as permanent guest conductor of the Czech Philharmonic and principal guest conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, a post he is relinquishing after this season. In March, London’s Philharmonia Orchestra announced the appointment of two principal guest conductors who assume their posts at the beginning of the 2017-18 season: Hrůša and Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Charles Mackerras last served as principal guest conductor until his death in 2010. According to Hrůša, the position has been revived as way to provide more time for principal conductor and artistic adviser Esa-Pekka Salonen to compose and to solidify the orchestra’s relationships with the two conductors stepping into the duo posts.

As for whether Hrůša might have bigger ambitions, perhaps serving as a music director of a higher-profile orchestra, he said, “I’m welcoming things that come into my life. I think if everything goes as it goes, it will be a beautiful thing to realize, but I’m not planning anything in this way. The fact that there are orchestras that are very nicely interested in regular work with me shows that there is something natural in having more and more intense and personal relationships with some of them. But who knows what will come in the future?”

Certainly, major orchestras in Europe and North America are interested in him. Last season, he appeared for the first time with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. This season includes guest-conducting debuts with the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich and of course, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

“It is important,” Hrůša said. “I think it is the fulfillment of the dreams of any conductor you can name. But of course, it would be a bit strange if conductors and artists primarily do what they do just to get somewhere for a debut. What we do, or at least what I do, is one little step followed by another little step, doing as much quality work in music as possible. I would say that one of the nicest things about my professional life these days is that the development of the career doesn’t need to be pushed or pressed or stressed. It has its natural breath.”

TOP: Jakub Hrůša, who will make his CSO debut this week, believes that Smetana’s Má vlast is in his blood. | Photo: Andreas Herzau