Jac, most people will be familiar with the famous second movement of Má vlast — how often do audiences outside the Czech Republic get to experience the full work?

The full cycle of Má vlast is hardly performed outside of the Czech Republic. You hear, of course, Vltava (The Moldau), which everybody knows — and it’s used (or abused!) in all commercials about bubbling water or fountains! But it’s rare to hear Má vlast performed in its entirety. It’s beautiful music with a film-like aspect to it. The music tells a story, a very dramatic one sometimes, that conjures up images in the mind.

What significance does Má vlast hold for the Czech people?

It’s the national anthem, so to speak, for the Czech Republic, and performed by the Prague Symphony Orchestra every year on 28 October as a statement of national tradition and pride. Last year, I had the opportunity to conduct the Concert for the Republic, which took place during the Czech Republic’s six-month Presidency of the Council of the European Union. As I am Dutch, and not a native Czech conductor, it was an honour to be asked to do the complete cycle of Má vlast. For me, Prague is a big musical temple, and to perform in Smetana Hall was an enormously exciting experience. It was also special that Heather Duncan [BSO Head of Concerts and Artistic Planning] was there to see me perform the piece ahead of my concert with the BSO.

As a Dutch conductor, how do you approach a piece that is such an intrinsic part of the Czech musical identity?

I have experienced Prague’s traditions over the last 10 years and learned how my Czech conducting heroes, like Jiří Bělohlávek [former conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra] and Jakub Hrůša [Music Director of the Royal Opera House], play a piece like Má vlast. In Prague, the orchestra will do their own thing because they’ve been playing the piece a certain way since 1878! I could bring my own ideas and prepare all the details, like you always do as a conductor, but they know the piece by heart, and they know the traditions.

How do you think performing Má vlast with a UK orchestra will compare to conducting it in Prague?

When I perform with Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, I think we will be able to embrace the Czech traditions together. I know the Orchestra very well, and they are sensitive and flexible and will adapt to the style that I try to bring from Prague. Má vlast is at the top of Romantic music, and the BSO has a special, romantic sound that will complement Smetana’s music beautifully.

Why do you think it’s important to perform Má vlast outside of the Czech Republic?

There are many examples where the wrong side of nationalism has led to war, conflict, and anger, but there is a good side of nationalism where you are simply proud of your music and proud of your country, which is why I think performing the Smetana to a UK audience is important. I want to share the Czech people’s pride in their music and its beauty, and, knowing the BSO audience very well, I think they will love the romantic, overwhelming beauty of Má vlast.

The concert will take place during a special year for Smetana — tell us more…

One of the reasons we’re performing this concert [in Poole and Portsmouth] in 2024 is that it’s the 200th anniversary of Smetana’s birth. I suggested doing the complete cycle of Má vlast as it’s a fantastic experience, but it’s also a tribute to Smetana who, along with Dvořák, is a musical hero for the Czech Republic. There is so much pride in these composers, and I will try to let that shine when I perform with the BSO.

Jac van Steen conducts My Country at Lighthouse, Poole on Wednesday 24 January and at Portsmouth Guildhall on Thursday 25 January

This article has been republished from our member’s magazine, Quarternote. If you’d like to read more behind the scenes content, why not consider becoming a BSO member? For more information on BSO membership click here.