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.
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.