José Carreras will sing a program of classics and Christmas music with support from soprano Mi-Hae Park, the Prague Philharmonic Children’s Choir and the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra at O2 Arena on Dec. 10
Like the fragrance of mulled wine, holiday music fills the air in Prague during December. The city’s usual bounty of classical and traditional music becomes a rich feast during the Christmas season, when perennial favorites return to the halls and churches, and the opera houses, orchestras and chamber ensembles stage special holiday programs.
With such a stunning variety of concerts scheduled for the next few weeks, there’s something for every taste and desire – big-budget stars and productions, intimate chamber music, rousing orchestral performances, family fare and, of course, Czech classics like Jakub Jan Rybaʼs Czech Christmas Mass. Herewith, an overview of the season’s best offerings and where to hear them.
The National Theater’s The Nutcracker – A Christmas Carol is the most lavish holiday production in Prague, brimming with colorful costumes and dazzling sets. Purists may find the admixture of Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet with elements of a Dickens’ holiday heartwarmer a bit perplexing, but the kids aren’t going to care. Performances run through Jan. 7, including two on Christmas day.
A scene from the National Theater’s performance of ‘The Nutcracker’
For star power, there’s world-famous tenor José Carreras, who will be singing a program of classics and Christmas music with support from soprano Mi-Hae Park, the Prague Philharmonic Children’s Choir and the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra (O2 Arena, Dec. 10). Fans of another singing star, Czech mezzo Dagmar Pecková, will have a chance to hear her in a much more intimate setting with a fine chamber group, Vojtěch Spurnýʼs Ensemble 18+ (Sts. Simon and Jude Church, Dec. 20).
Almost all the major orchestras have scheduled special holiday concerts, some with more seasonal music than others. The Czech Philharmonic is offering a Nutcracker suite as icing on a serious Christmas cake of Beethoven and Martinů, with Australian pianist Piers Lane soloing on Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto (Rudolfinum, Dec. 21–22). The orchestra is also playing a New Year’s Eve afternoon program of light works by Dvořák, de Sarasate and Johann Strauss, sending the audience out for a night of revelry with the melodies of StraussʼDie Fledermaus overture and Blue Danube waltz (Rudolfinum, Dec. 31).
The Prague Philharmonia and Kühn's Children Choir during a 2008 concert with José Carreras
The Prague Philharmonia is moving to Žofín for its Christmas concert, which will feature a program of popular opera arias by Verdi, Puccini and Donizetti sung by soprano Tereza Mátlová and tenor Aleš Briscein, who will also lead the audience in a closing set of Christmas carols (Žofín main hall, Dec. 21).
The Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra will serve up a confection of two seasonal J.S. Bach works, the Christmas Oratorio and Cantata No. 1 for the First Holiday of Christmas, with a strong cast of local singers that includes alto Markéta Cukrová, tenor Jaroslav Březina and the Prague Philharmonic Choir (Rudolfinum, Dec. 19). And the indefatigable Libor Pešek will lead the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and a large cast of local singers in a program of Pachelbel, J.S. Bach and Rybaʼs Czech Christmas Mass (Obecní dům, Dec. 20).
The early music offerings this year are particularly good. There may be no finer spiritual experience in Prague than hearing Schola Gregoriana Pragensis, which brings Gregorian chants to life, sing in the 12th-century Basilica of St. George at Prague Castle (Dec. 21).
Collegium Marianum, which performs in an atmospheric setting in Old Town, is doing a program of 17th- and 18th-century Czech Christmas music featuring two outstanding local singers, Hana Blažíková and Barbora Sojková (Baroque Library Hall, Dec. 28 & 29). And Prague’s best Baroque ensemble, Collegium 1704, is wrapping up the year in spectacular fashion with a double bill of J.S. Bachʼs Magnificat and Zelenkaʼs Te Deum (Sts. Simon and Jude Church, Dec. 31).
One could go no further than the State Opera and have a very enjoyable holiday season. With its storied history and fabulous rococo interior, it offers the most charming atmosphere in the city. On Christmas day, a brass quintet and the Kühn Children’s Choir will perform Czech composer Jan Seidelʼs popular program of “Bethlehem Songs.” And on New Year’s Eve, the State Opera offers an ideal setting for a lively production of StraussʼDie Fledermaus.
The question about Rybaʼs Christmas Mass isn’t whether to see it, but where, and done by whom. The National Theater is featuring it in Sunday Advent concerts all this month with the house orchestra and singers conducted by David Švec, and in four performances at the Estates Theater by the Children’s Opera Prague (Dec. 21 & 22). A chamber group from the Prague Symphony Orchestra is performing it with the Kühn Mixed Choir on Christmas Day (Sts. Simon and Jude Church, Dec. 25). It also plays once at St. Salvator Church (Dec. 17), three times at the Klementinum (Dec. 17, 20 & 21), and in the aforementioned Czech National Symphony Orchestra concert at Obecní dům.
For another take on the deep strain of traditional music that runs through the Czech holidays, try one of the country’s two premier folk ensembles. Chorea Bohemica, which blends traditional songs and dances with folk art and theater, will be setting up shop at the Ball Game Hall at Prague Castle for seven performances (Dec. 9, 10 & 11), then moving to the Estates Theater for two nights (Dec. 18 & 19). Musica Bohemica, an impressive costumed ensemble run by the versatile musician and composer Jaroslav Krček, will be in Prague on Christmas day (Sts. Simon and Jude Church, Dec. 25).
A scene from ‘The Nutcracker’ at the National Theater
This year’s schedule also offers some good opportunities to relax and recover from post-holiday stress. Along with the New Year’s Eve concerts already noted, the Prague Symphony Orchestra is offering a soft New Year’s Day program of Dvořákʼs Slavonic Dances, conducted by Charles Olivieri-Munroe (Obecní dům, Jan. 1).
Organist extraordinaire Irena Chřibková will be at the giant console at St. James for two programs of light classics, the day after Christmas with soprano Eva Štruplová and flutist Mario Mesany, and on New Year’s Day with a brass quartet (St. Jamesʼ Basilica, Dec. 26 & Jan. 1).
And a delightful segue back to the serious season comes from the Talich Chamber Orchestra, which will be backing two very good singers, Chinese soprano Lily Zhang and American baritone Richard Zeller, in a program of opera arias (Sts. Simon and Jude Church, Jan. 2).
Frank Kuznik is a Prague-based freelance journalist