Pop – with strings attached | Monocle

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Cut Prague and it would surely bleed music. In most cities the sight of a busker armed with a piano accordion would strike fear into the heart, swiftly followed by agony for the ears. But in the Czech Republic’s capital, wonderment ensues as a street musician feathers the bellows to produce an uncanny impersonation of a string section performing Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”. Well worth 50 koruna in the hat.

This audacious feat takes place outside the city’s equally impressive palace of music, the art nouveau Municipal House. Sandwich boards advertise “concerts every day”, ranging from the standard classical repertoire through to Harry Potter – A Magic Evening. Prague certainly has the orchestras to cover the workload: including chamber ensembles, the number runs into double figures. Impressive for any city; mind-boggling for one with a population of 1.3 million.

“We say that every Czech is a musician,” says violinist Helena Jirikovska, fresh from performing an evening of Brahms, Debussy and Torelli with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra (CNSO). She confirms that playing under the baton of the CNSO’s world-renowned chief conductor Libor Pesek at Smetana Hall, the most ornate of the venues at Municipal House, is not exactly a chore. “It’s not only work – it’s music. That’s why they like us as an orchestra for recording.”

“They” are the international clients that have identified Prague as one of the most reliable sources of orchestras for recording sessions and live work. So while the CNSO appears at Smetana Hall at least once every month – “We want to stay in touch with the Prague audience and play for them,” says clarinettist and orchestra co-ordinator Dusan Mihely – its bread and butter comes from outside the Czech Republic.

“From the late 1980s onwards, Prague became the first port of call for those on a budget,” says James Fitzpatrick, a veteran UK producer and label owner, who also books sessions for the City of Prague Philharmonic (recent credits include albums by Adele and Take That). “In Prague we can do anything,” he adds.

The CNSO is proof of that. As trumpeter and director Jan Hasenöhrl describes it, the ensemble was born “overnight” in 1993, when Victor Entertainment of Japan asked if he had an orchestra that could record a series of Dvorak CDs. Hasenöhrl answered in the affirmative, then scrambled to find the players to fulfil his commitment.

Several years of sometimes unsavoury hustle followed. Hasenöhrl admits to bruising encounters with loan sharks and, at one point, selling his car to keep the orchestra running. But by the late 1990s, CNSO had made profitable contacts with Italian television companies, eventually leading to its most illustrious client.

An initial collaboration with Ennio Morricone on the soundtrack to Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Best Offer resulted in a Silver Ribbon for the maestro and an enduring relationship for the CNSO. The fruits have included European arena tours and an Oscar-winning partnership on Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight – at the age of 87, Morricone’s first win.

It is, perhaps, hard to imagine the veteran Italian composer in Hostivar, one of Prague’s less picturesque suburbs. But this is where he conducted the CNSO for those award-winning sessions, at the orchestra’s Sound Trust studio complex.

“Sitting in the same room with Ennio Morricone and Quentin Tarantino, and working on the scores – there was a feeling,” says Mihely. “Then when the score was nominated and Ennio won the Oscar, we felt like one family.”

“Everyone is quiet and very humble when Ennio Morricone is here,” says Jan Vitek, a French horn player who doubles as the orchestra’s manager. “You can feel the respect but this respect is mutual.”

That much is confirmed by the genial figure in the studio control room, Fabio Venturi. The Italian sound engineer works closely with Morricone and now brings other clients to work with the CNSO at Sound Trust. He says the orchestra’s flexibility, rather than lower rates, is the key to its success. “What you save in one part you spend on travel, so you’re doing it for the quality. Morricone doesn’t have a problem with his budget – he just likes this orchestra. They can adapt to changes very quickly. When we did The Best Offer, we suddenly decided we needed a glass harmonica – and they found it!”

The Morricone connection has taken the CNSO’s reputation to another level. “It goes step by step: we meet one producer, then they recommend friends to come to Prague. Fabio is maybe the key person for us: he’s a friend of Ennio and a lot of other producers. Every year we meet two or three producers and they come back,” says Hasenöhrl.

On this particular occasion Venturi is recording the orchestra for a piece by a French contemporary composer, Laurent Chaix. But it could just as easily be a soundtrack commissioned by a film or television production in Europe, the US or India. And the framed posters that cover Sound Trust’s wood-panelled walls show that the CNSO is equally at home with both pop and jazz performers: from Wynton Marsalis to Sting; Melody Gardot to Queen’s Brian May.

“We love to do not only classical music but things which are a lot of fun,” says Mihely. “We did a big tour with George Michael – 50 concerts, his last big tour. We can do any kind of recording or live concert. That means any request from clients: separate strings, brass or percussion sessions. We just put the scores on the stand, sit down and play.”

This variety adds to the appeal for players sch as Jirikovska, who divides her time between the CNSO and leading the internationally respected Skampa Quartet. “This orchestra is very special. There are very good players here and the co-operation is very good.”

Shrinking budgets for pop recordings have led to gloomy predictions that orchestras might disappear from albums in favour of samples. But the CNSO offers hope to up-and-coming international bands such as Sheffield three-piece Rale. Emboldened by BBC radio play for their debut single, “Sprinkle with Rust”, they plan to emulate one of their influences, Echo and The Bunnymen, in adding real string parts to their forthcoming debut album.

“It sounds incredible being immersed with the orchestra when they’re playing,” says guitarist Dino Sofos, on a visit to the CNSO studios to discuss the options. “There’s no way we could hire Abbey Road and an orchestra. But with a bit of label money or a grant from the Performing Rights Society this is genuinely within the reach of a lot of bands. And everyone speaks English; it’s a really international atmosphere.”

The CNSO may be part of the more modern entrepreneurial side of the Czech Republic but its premises reflect the past. Built as a “culture palace” in the 1980s, the orchestra has kept the original fittings – “A witness of the time,” says Hasenöhrl.

“I’m a big anti-communist,” says Vitek. “But the school system they had with artistic schools was quite well managed. That’s why we have so many good quality musicians.”

“People were really motivated,” adds Mihely. “In the communist system, being a musician was a way to travel and become a free citizen. I did anything I could to become the best player I could be.”

That dedication is now paying off, not just for the CNSO but several other Prague orchestras that have found a niche in recording or live work. International clients may initially be attracted by the rates but return for the quality of the work. Hasenöhrl says the only problem is that other former communist countries are getting in on the act. “We have competition from Hungary, Sofia in Bulgaria, Poland, Russia and Slovakia,” he says.

But even if the competition is heating up, few other cities can boast Prague’s musical heritage or the same depth of talent. For the foreseeable future, this city will remain on top of the podium.

Top tips for recording

Check the price:
Jan Hasenöhrl says a day of recording with the CNSO in their studios will cost about €6,000, depending on the configuration required. Studio rates start at €600 a day. City of Prague Philharmonic (COPPO) fixer James Fitzpatrick says it costs €69 per musician for a four-hour session. In London, for example, it would cost three or four times that.

Choose your team:
Budget too small for a 90-piece orchestra? Hire a smaller ensemble. Post-punk revivalists Rale plan to work with a handful of CNSO musicians and use overdubs to build up the sound. In-house arrangers, conductors and engineers are available but the client may choose to provide their own.

Plan the session:
The days of bands spending a year recording an album are long gone... but a well-planned day in the studio can be productive. Jan Vitek says the CNSO can record about 50 minutes of music in a day.

Stay at home:
There is no shame in remote recording, favoured by the likes of Adele. Both the CNSO’s Sound Trust and the COPP’s Smecky studios are equipped with webcams and voip talkback facilities. Unfortunately, dinner at the Café Imperial is not an option.

Shop around:
As well as the CNSO and COPP, the Prague Symphony and Capellen are among the other well-known recording orchestras. The ensembles admit to a friendly rivalry and they share some of the same players. Fitzpatrick says the most in-demand play for as many as half a dozen orchestras and command higher fees.

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