Karel Ančerl of the Toronto Symphony

While reading Hermione Lee’s account of Tom Stoppard’s childhood in Czechoslovakia I was reminded of Karel Ančerl, the Toronto Symphony’s conductor and music-director roughly fifty years ago.

Karel Ancerl

Before Kenneth Stoppard appears on the scene in Darjeeling India, marries Magda Sträussler, and takes the widow and her two boys to England, we hear of their harrowing escape to Singapore. The family of Dr Eugen Sträussler, including Magda, Petr and Tomáš were Jewish, escaping out of Czechoslovakia.

You may recognize the name of Karel Ančerl, the conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra between 1968 and 1973. Like the Sträussler family, he left Czechoslovakia, although he came to Toronto.

I was embarrassed to discover how little I knew about Ančerl. I vaguely recall that the Soviet crackdown in Prague in 1968 coincided with his arrival in Toronto, that he’d emigrated, made Toronto his new home, and became the conductor & music-director of the Toronto Symphony.

I was too young to notice much.

I think you could make the case that Ančerl was the finest conductor ever to take the position of TSO music-director even if he wasn’t in the position for very long. I’m a bit crestfallen that there’s so little to remind me of Ančerl anywhere in Toronto today. I must investigate further to see what I can find. I notice that the Toronto Public Library site has pictures in their archive.

Ančerl is buried back in his homeland.

It was only when I looked online for more about Ančerl that I saw that he had more in common with Stoppard than expected. I hadn’t realized that he too was Jewish, that he had been the only member of his family to survive Auschwitz. No wonder he died so young. Perhaps his time in the camp shortened his life. He was only 65 when he passed away in the summer of 1973.

I saw that he was among the musicians in Terezin, aka “Teresienstadt”, the model camp where the operas Brundibar and Der Kaiser von Atlantis were composed under the most challenging circumstances imaginable. I find it mind-boggling to think that Ančerl must have worked with Krása and Ullmann.

There is a whole huge career of course, from roughly 1950 until 1967 or so, when he brought the Czech Philharmonic to the attention of the world.

We were so lucky that he chose to come here.

Long ago I owned a TSO recording led by Ančerl, an open-reel tape I had taken from CBC radio, live performances of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Martinů’s Symphony No. 5. I no longer have my open-reel machine nor the tapes. As I was reading Lee’s book about Stoppard I was inspired to see whether I could find the performances somehow. Eureka, Presto Music to the rescue. It’s uncanny, magical to immerse oneself in a performance I heard so many times long ago.

I wonder (and regret) that we don’t hear more Martinů. Where Janacek seems to have broken through to the first rank of composers, I can’t recall the last time a Martinů composition turned up on radio or with the TSO.

I was thrilled to find the performance on youtube, so you can hear it for yourself.

Ančerl seemed to have great rapport with the TSO, but I can only guess as to the real chemistry. Even though I was very young, I remember the glances before he started, the eye contact, the way he held his baton. I wasn’t present for this concert, only getting it via CBC radio. The Beethoven performance is magisterial, an interpretation I put alongside the best I’ve ever heard. The fact that it was the performance of the work that I listened to most as a teenager might have influenced my judgment.

I went to see what’s available from Supraphon where I found some wonderful recordings by the Czech Philhrmonic, led by Ančerl. In fact they have a whole series honouring him. His bio on their website is found here. I will be exploring that series.

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4 Responses to Karel Ančerl of the Toronto Symphony

  1. Gary King says:

    I attended the concert in which Ancerl lead the TSO in Beethoven’s 6th. It was a most memorable experience. Fortunately, his performance was recorded and, many years later, I was able to buy a copy. Ancerl conducted and recorded a lot of other music, mostly with the Czech Philharmonic and it is all worth listening to.

  2. Fred Ford says:

    I had season tickets for the TSO during the Ancerl years. Many of those concerts have remained in my soul ever since. I was present at the performances of the Martinu, and then again at the Beethoven 6th. I never understood why the CBC married those two performances on CD. Separate concerts and two works with no apparent connection. Oh well, that’s the CBC, I guess.

    The Martinu remains most vivid in my memory. At the time, I had never heard of Martinu, but I was swept away from the opening bars. Martinu’s hyperactive orchestration is a visual treat, but the music spoke directly to my heart. If the TSO recording still has the applause at the end, you can dimly hear me shouting “Bravo!”

    Back then recordings of Martinu were few and far between. His music doesn’t seem to get performed much in Toronto, if at all, but at least now I have five complete symphony cycles sitting on my shelves. One of these is of live performances by the LSO conducted by the late Jiri Behalovek. Apparently, the concerts were completely sold out, so Martinu seems to be gaining recognition and popularity, just not here.

    But forgive me, if memory still serves, didn’t we attend a TSO performance of the fourth symphony together? Vaclav Neumann conducted. On that occasion,.I recall it was your turn to shout “Bravo!”

  3. barczablog says:

    Ah memories, or perhaps more precisely I should say “memory”: just how does it work (or fail)? Clearly people retain the most exciting & stimulating moments. I don’t doubt your recollection of a big loud bravo even if it’s lost to my own foggy brainpan. I have been intrigued, even obsessed with the question of popularity. It makes for bigger or smaller currents in the flow of cultural history. Was Martinu nothing more than a national favorite (relevant for Ancerl & Neumann), that he was programmed, then seems to be almost forgotten by the TSO? But they have to sell tickets, so we get John Williams in various guises (that is, sometimes with a movie showing, sometimes purely in concert). I think, too, expectations of popularity were behind the marriage you spoke of (Martinu & Beethoven on a CD). My mind boggles when I think of the discovery of composers such as Krása and Ullmann, their (overusing the word at this point?) popularity, when we had (that is earlier: before the works were even rediscovered) an authority in our midst, who may have discussed the orchestrations & effects over whatever passed for coffee at Theresienstadt & later Auschwitz. What did Ancerl remember? But: who asked him about his life? He had so much to tell us, to teach us. Pardon me, my mind boggles a fair bit, so much so that I wonder that it doesn’t make noises like a lawnmower whose mixture needs to be adjusted. If this blog has any value I think it’s in provoking recollections & conversation about the past; theatre history is a blank page without them. I thank God for memory, especially as I notice how it sometimes slips away from me. Thank you for your sharing your memories.

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