Petr Popelka makes an exciting and unexpected debut in Chicago

Petr Popelka’s lightning-fast career rise got an important if unexpected boost in early January. 

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra announced that the 38-year-old Czech conductor would substitute March 1 and 2 for Herbert Blomstedt, who is recovering from a fall and had to withdraw from his scheduled appearances. Because Popelka has to be in Berlin for rehearsals for a concert there, the March 5 performance has been canceled. 

“It’s amazing,” he said of the surprise opportunity. “Not in my wildest dreams would I ever think about it. Stepping in with this orchestra, it’s something absolutely extraordinary.” 

“It’s amazing,” he said of the surprise opportunity. “Not in my wildest dreams would I ever think about it. Stepping in with this orchestra, it’s something absolutely extraordinary.”

Working with the CSO’s artistic staff, Popelka added Mendelssohn’s concert overture, The Hebrides, to the originally announced program. Also on the line-up is Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92, and Schubert’s Symphony No. 6 in C Major, D. 589. 

Popelka, chief conductor designate of the Vienna Symphony, will be leading the Schubert symphony for the first time, but he is undaunted because of his familiarity with the composer’s music and because he has adequate time to do the necessary study. “I feel so at home with Schubert that I said yes to a symphony I had never conducted before,” he said. 

The set of March concerts will be only his second engagement in the United States, following Popelka’s American debut Jan. 12-14 with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Until then, the career of the Prague-based conductor had been entirely focused on Europe. He is also set to return to this country this summer, when he will guest conduct the Cleveland Orchestra at the Blossom Music Festival. 

Popelka’s Chicago appearance will be the latest in a string of important guest-conducting debuts this season, including first-time performances with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Munich Philharmonic, Orchestre National de France and Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse. “My conducting career is not that long,” he said.  “So, most of what I’m doing is conducting with new orchestras.” 

What makes Popelka’s success all the more striking is that he left the Staatskapelle Dresden just five years ago after serving as the highly regarded German orchestra’s associate principal bass since 2010.  

His path to the podium is a highly unusual one. Although he had had an interest in composing and conducting since childhood, he left his native Prague when he was about 18 to study the double bass at the Freiburg University of Music in Germany. During his time there, he made a point of poring over scores, especially those of contemporary German works, in the school’s library. “I was fascinated with all this music happening in Germany,” he said. “My dream was to study conducting and composition, but I had such good bass teachers that I got very soon a job in an orchestra.” 

When he was 23, he joined the Staatskapelle. Its intense work schedule, which includes playing for operas and touring, left him no time to pursue conducting or composing. So, when he turned 30, realizing that he had never had the chance to do what he really wanted to do, he took a one-year sabbatical. The bassist wrote music and took part in conducting masterclasses. “That’s how it started,” he said of this new stage in his musical career. 

Six years ago, he took part in the Malko Competition, an important contest for budding conductors that is organized by the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Although he did not win any prizes, he caught the attention of some of the members of the orchestra, who urged orchestra leaders to invite him back. His first appearance was a children’s concert, and that performance in turn led to engagements with other ensembles, including the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, where he became chief conductor in August 2020, a post he has since left. 

Feeling optimistic about the direction of his nascent conducting career, he resigned from the Staatskapelle Dresden in 2019. “I took this risk to go in the way that I always wanted to go,” he said. In 2022, he was named chief conductor and artistic director of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, a post that brought him back to his homeland. 

But bigger things yet were ahead for Popelka. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he substituted with the well-respected Vienna Symphony, taking the place of a conductor who was unable to make the journey to Austria. Later, he stepped in for Andrés Orozco-Estrada, who unexpectedly resigned as chief conductor in 2022 when his contract was not extended beyond 2024/25. On that second visit, Popelka joined the orchestra for Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in Vienna’s famed Musikverein. “It was such a beautiful week, really — the atmosphere with the orchestra, the chemistry between us was so natural and so nice,” he said.  

“It was such a beautiful week, really — the atmosphere with the orchestra, the chemistry between us was so natural and so nice,” he said.  

A year later, the orchestra chose him as Orozco-Estrada’s successor, an appointment that is set to begin in 2024/25. As chief conductor designate this season, he is leading multiple concerts in Vienna and heading two European tours with the ensemble.     

In addition to his symphonic engagements, Popelka has also regularly pursued opera, because he is a big of the form. “It’s something I really enjoyed playing in the orchestra,” he said. “It’s such a different thing than playing symphonic music. I love opera. I love the theater. Every evening is different. You have to react to a thousand different things.”  

This season, he has made his debut with the Zurich Opera and led the Vienna Symphony in a new production of Jaromír Weinberger’s Schwanda the Bagpiper (1926) at the MusikTheater an der Wien. Future engagements include a return to the Zurich Opera as well as new production of Die Fledermaus in Vienna. 

From the bass section of the Staatskapelle to the podium of the CSO in five years — Popelka has been engaged in an amazing journey. “I’m very thankful,” he said. “There is not a clear plan for conducting: If you do this, you will succeed. You never know. Every orchestra is different. What works with one orchestra doesn’t necessary work with the next orchestra. It’s just beautiful to experience.”