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Interview with John Tregellas

PragueConnect.cz in cooperation with Czech & Slovak Leaders Magazine

On Youth Orchestras and Music as Diplomacy and Partnership Opportunities

Have you ever thought about the parallels between a book and a concert? Do you know what it takes to bring over a large orchestra from overseas and make sure that it performs at the sold-out Smetana Hall?

Meet John Tregellas who is celebrating 25 years of living in Prague and successfully working in the realm of classical music. When you visit him in his office located in his beloved Vinohrady, you can immediately sense that he is the type of personality whose passion has turned into a full time job. He believes that “a concert is not only about those people who attend in person but it also exists outside the concert hall. People see posters, they read articles and blogs, they may talk about an event even if they weren’t there themselves – it’s like a bestseller that not everyone has read but which people are eager to discuss. Therefore, when a foreign orchestra comes to visit, it is not only a cultural event, it can also be a political event.” John Tregellas and his agency The Prague Concert Co. have been successful in presenting prestigious and innovative orchestras, such as the Staff Band of the Norwegian Armed Forces (in existence for 199 years) and the Turkish National Youth Philharmonic (also famous for projects such as the Laboratory of Democracy or Music That Unites). Not only does he introduce new orchestras, choirs and other musical ensembles to the Prague audience, but he himself sings with the Kühn Choir of Prague. Last but not least, thanks to the fact that Mr. Tregellas speaks both Czech and German fluently, he has become an expert on the region of Central Europe, covering the area from the Baltics to the Adriatic coast. Perhaps it is no coincidence that such an area corresponds to the Kingdom of Charles IV and it proves the saying that music and arts have no borders.



Mr. Tregellas, can you share with us your career journey that took you from the beautiful seaside county of Devon all the way to the City of Prague a quarter of a century ago?

The countryside of the Southwest of England is beautiful and I still love to go there but it was a bit of a small world for me. I had been influenced by travelling to continental Europe a lot since early childhood. I studied French, German and Czech at university in England. I chose Czech partly because of family connections – my ancestry goes back to Northern Moravia, to a village close to Králický Sněžník. When I attended my first Czech lesson at the age of 19, I did not know how profoundly it would influence the course of my future career. During the 1980s, I started visiting Czechoslovakia regularly. And early in 1990, after the Velvet Revolution, a friend of mine urged me to come over, saying that “anything was now possible”. After a few weeks’ consideration, I took her advice. Overnight, I became a journalist working for the English language division of Czechoslovak Radio which was very exciting. In addition to this European dimension, I must mention another passion of mine, which is classical music. I played and still play the piano, and spent a lot of time making music, singing in choirs, and so I had a lot of musical connections back in the UK. When I moved here, these people started to contact me asking for help with organising concert tours. One of my first big projects was to help organise and promote Vladimir Ashkenazy’s debut piano recital in the Czech Republic, which took place in the Spanish Hall of the Prague Castle as a benefit concert for the Václav Havel Foundation. As the number of musical projects continued to grow, I had to choose between journalism and concert promotion. I decided to follow my passion.

And so The Prague Concert Co. was born in 1994. What was it like being an entrepreneur in Prague in the early 1990s?

To sum up, it was me alone in a room without a phone. First, I had to find a suitable place and fix it up, since there was very limited availability of office space at the time. I found a semi-basement room in Vinohrady, without a phone line. Not really an ideal way of starting an agency, without the possibility of receiving phone calls or faxes. And no mobile phones of course! As some readers might remember, to get a phone line back then was a lengthy and difficult process. So a friend of mine, living across the street, organised for his home phone line to be hooked up “unofficially” to my office, so that I could use it. However, it was a shared line with one of his neighbours. So when the neighbour was speaking, we were again cut off. It took about 18 months to improve the phone situation. As for geographical development, in the beginning, we focused on Prague but we quickly expanded our activities to take in the rest of the Czech Republic, Slovakia naturally came next, followed by Poland, Germany, Austria, Hungary and in recent years Slovenia and Croatia. Naturally, the number of projects has risen. We dealt with about 10-15 tours per year in the early years, we now handle some 80 projects per year. With such a large number of touring ensembles, you need to identify those which are the most prestigious and give them a separate identity. Five years ago, we launched the Musica Orbis concert series which presents the most distinguished groups under a separate brand. In addition to the two orchestras already mentioned, the Staff Band of the Norwegian Armed Forces and the Turkish National Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, Musica Orbis has presented the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra with their inspiring conductor Ben Zander and world-renowned cellist Natalia Gutman as soloist, the Wind Ensemble of the Eastman School of Music, the Eton Symphony Orchestra from Eton College, England, and the Bard College Conservatory Orchestra with soprano soloist and 5-times Grammy winner Dawn Upshaw. In 2017, we are looking forward to welcoming the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra and the World Civic Orchestra amongst others. The latter is a fascinating group which brings together musicians from around the world to bridge cultural differences and they will be performing a newly commissioned work by Czech composer Jiří Trtík as well as the ever popular Dvořák Violin Concerto.

You mentioned many projects that introduce young orchestras. What is it that you find special working with young musicians?

I feel very fortunate that my business has developed in this direction. Working with young musicians means working with people who have enormous reserves of talent, commitment and drive. There is a magical sparking moment when these young people come to perform in major concert halls and engage with great repertoire for the first time. This releases a palpable explosion of musical energy, which is what you can often feel at our concerts!

What is the secret to make sure these orchestras that are not widely well known manage to get the attention of the public and turn into sold out events?

Audience building is an important element of a promoter’s work. Our unique approach to this challenge was to form our Concert Club ten years ago. Today, we have more than 3500 core sympathisers in our database that spread our news further. They form an interested and enthusiastic community of people following classical music. This is a very powerful tool and thanks to e-mail communication with the majority of club members we can fill a concert hall within 48 hours. Our members are very loyal and respond fast. As a result, we are happy to work with other promoters to assist them in distributing tickets. Of course, there are many ticket portals offering ticket distribution services, but our relationship with Concert Club members is a more personal one: they trust our recommendations and guarantee us good attendance at the events which we promote or co-organise.

You invite musicians from all over the world and they come. Are there any cultural differences they should be ready for when facing a Central European audience?

We present orchestras and choirs not only from English-speaking countries, but also from Africa, Turkey, Israel, Australia, Russia, China, Japan. And one thing that is special for the Czech Republic, to some extent for the region as a whole, is the particular type of audience response. This is generally a very informed, educated audience who will show their appreciation very thoroughly. Our visiting ensembles are often surprised that the audience will not let them leave the stage without an encore, or even two or three if they liked the performance. This may be different from what they would experience at home, so it is our role to advise them to have a few encores prepared. On the other hand we also need to recognize and respect the customs of our visiting groups. For example in the Chinese-Czech Music Festival that we have co-organized for the last 3 years, we have become attuned to the importance of ceremony in Chinese culture. Therefore all participating ensembles receive an official diploma on stage, ideally from a municipal representative at an official ceremony at the end of the festival day.

It is said that music has no borders but what is it like to bring over a 100-piece orchestra for a tour, not only in one country, but to the whole region?

The thought that music is a language that crosses borders is very nice as far as it goes, but when an orchestra actually crosses borders, then things get more complicated. So logistics is in fact the essence of our work. It is not glamorous and it does not make headlines but you need to get hundreds of little details right so that the orchestra, the conductor, the soloists and their instruments end up on stage at the right time in the best state of mind (for performers) and in perfect condition (for instruments). And then the conductor takes over and we can hopefully breathe a sigh of relief. Yet every minute on that journey can be jeopardised. Volcanic ash causes flights to be cancelled, airline staff go out on strike and ground entire fleets, a group coach gets caught up at a border crossing where refugees are blocking the route. Then there is the whole issue of instrument transportation. As air freight has become very expensive, we often need to rent instruments for our young players – imagine renting at the same time seven cellos, five double-basses, percussion, and a harp. These instruments are very valuable and we have to persuade the owners to trust us to take care of them – which means transporting them in air-conditioned comfort using experienced instrument handlers. Fortunately, with the EU customs union in place, our job has become much easier. In the old days, I had to send colleagues to the Czech- German border to explain to officials that we were not smuggling valuable instruments but just transporting part of a bona fide orchestra which had somehow got separated from its paperwork. Besides the logistics, we also have to manage many people’s expectations, whether those of musicians, executive directors, promoters or audiences. We have to prepare young musicians for the fact that they will be playing rented instruments which might be different to those they are used to. Much the same holds true for organs and organists. Choirs from the US often travel with their organists, but they are generally used to playing rather more modern instruments. And then we take them to a church in Prague that might have a 16th or 17th century organ. Even the way an orchestra comes on stage differs from country to country. Orchestral musicians in the US come on stage randomly, at the same time as the audience and start to warm up. In Europe, all the musicians process on together at the start of the performance.

You have already touched upon the importance of partnerships when organizing a concert tour. So who are your partners and who are you looking for?

The enterprise is a collaborative one on many different levels, we partner with musicians, hotels, venues, other promoters when placing concerts outside of Prague, reliable local partners who share not only our enthusiasm for young musicians but also our production standards. In addition, concerts or projects above a certain level attract the attention of the diplomatic community which enhances the impact of the event. For example this year we co-organized the Prague Regional Conference of WASBE (World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles), a major event involving over 1200 participants from 20 countries, 20 wind ensembles from 7 countries, 12 musicological lectures, 28 concerts (including a gala in the Spanish Hall of the Prague Castle)… naturally many partnerships had to be built to make it happen and all the embassies of the performing bands’ home countries were invited to join this unique event. I also feel very strongly about supporting worthwhile initiatives in our community. We have promoted many benefit concerts to support Cesta domů (The Homecoming hospice), Portus (sheltered housing), Post Bellum and similar organizations. Such co-operation can be viewed as a two-way process since fundraising helps the organizations; on the other hand they raise awareness about the event and help to promote it. Much of the impetus for these relationships with charitable organisations comes from our own members of staff. Partnerships within our agency are also a dimension I am proud of. We are currently a team of 12 people, with various abilities and experience – from music to logistics, finance, marketing, linguistic competence, and a big dose of “people skills” spread around the office. All this has to pull together to create the perfect concert tour. But most of all, everyone needs to have that spark which makes them strive for the best results for each unique and exciting project which we undertake. And you have to have this in the back of your mind whether you are organizing transport, commissioning a poster layout, enhancing the atmosphere of a concert venue, because all of this comes together to create an overall impression both for your audience, and for your musicians.

What are your final words for the Czech and Slovak Leaders readers?

I would like to stress the important role which cultural exchange plays as soft diplomacy. Musicians are cultural ambassadors and the message which they bring is all the more powerful because it does not need translation. We are happy to partner with embassies, cultural organisations and other institutions to enable local audiences to explore the cultural heritage of other countries. If you have an interesting musical project, please share it with us. Join us through our Concert Club, experience the unique atmosphere and energy of our orchestras, choirs and other music ensembles from around the world.


Author: Linda Štucbartová
PragueConnect.cz in cooperation with Czech & Slovak Leaders Magazine 
Prague, 01.03.2017