Q and A with Jana Boušková

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Jana Boušková’s new album Má vlast, released on Supraphon on May 14, interprets the great music of Czech composers for solo harp. Boušková has transcribed the music she loves to make it shine on her instrument. With music from Smetana, Dvořák, and Suk, she pays homage to her Czech homeland and the beauty of its heritage. We reached out to Boušková to find out more about her project.

What gave you the idea for this project? How is it different from previous albums you’ve recorded?

I first had the idea in 2014 to enrich the harp repertoire with the works of the Czech masters who did not write anything for the solo harp. I searched for piano repertoire that had never been arranged for the harp, including Antonín Dvořák’s American Suite and Josef Suk’s composition Summer Impressions. I performed this music on the harp for the first time at the 150th anniversary celebration for Lyon & Healy in Chicago that same year. 

Jana Boušková new album “Má vlast” features music from Czech composers arranged for solo harp.

Of course, I have had Bedřich Smetana’s well-known Vltava in my repertoire for a long time, edited by Hanuš Trneček. The Vltava is close to me not only because I was born in the Czech Republic, but also because I grew up hearing my mother play Trneček’s arrangement at her concerts. Nevertheless, I modified Vltava for this album and supplemented it with a part that Hanuš Trneček forgot in his transcription. So my CD offers a new version of the Vltava, which is not common in the harp repertoire.

I wanted to supplement the Vltava with other parts of Má vlast, so I transcribed Vyšehrad and another contrasting part, Šárka. The idea of adding Šárka occurred to me when I was driving from a concert and I heard this part of Má vlast on the radio. I immediately imagined playing that on the harp. Both Vyšehrad and Šárka underwent painstaking revisions. After four years of work, and only thanks to the extra time that the COVID-19 pandemic gave us, I was finally able to complete all the transcriptions. I am now thrilled to bring my transcriptions to the world on my new CD, released on the world-famous Czech record label Supraphon. For me, it’s a musical child, and, at the same time, the achievement of a lifelong goal.

You arranged all the pieces for this album. Tell us more about the process of transcribing these important Czech works.

The process of transcribing was really not easy for me. Until working on this album, I never dared to edit harp compositions. When I transcribed piano compositions, I made as few changes as possible. But Má vlast, which translates to “My Homeland,” is really a work that runs in the blood of every Czech. I have played it so many times with my amazing orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic, that I had a special inspiration for the sound I wanted on the harp. I love these pieces so much that I felt as if I heard whispers from above telling me how certain passages should be played on the harp. In Šárka, the harp plays the role of cymbals, using Salzedo’s effect of brushing the palms over the wire strings. I really was able to give these arrangements all the colors I experience when I play this work with the Czech Philharmonic. In Vyšehrad, I struggled with the extensive chromaticism and replaced many unplayable passages with enharmonics. I tried to fill in the orchestral parts so that it captures the original version as closely as possible. Even after performing some of this repertoire on tour in 2017, I continued revising the arrangements during the pandemic. Only three months before the recording was completed, I was still working on my transcriptions—I chose to include Dvořák’s Largo at the last minute, and I’m very glad that I included this timeless and beautiful music on my CD. This album is my child, and that’s why I have to say that it means a lot to me, and I’m very happy for it.

Do you have any advice for other harpists interested in arranging orchestral music for harp?

My advice is mainly to have enthusiasm and love for the harp. My main motivation was to enrich the harp repertoire so that harpists can play the works of master composers who do not write anything for the harp. My lifelong desire is to elevate the harp to be a true and respected solo instrument. I hope other harpists will continue to expand the capabilities of the harp and make lasting additions to the harp repertoire.

Tell us about the recording process. What were the most challenging and the most rewarding moments?

I had the idea to make the CD three years ago, but I was still not satisfied with my transcriptions, and I had not had time to refine them. Three years ago I even started the recording and finished almost the entire record, but apparently the voice from above arranged that I interrupted the recording and did not finish. I wasn’t happy with the final sound quality, so I didn’t use the recording. 

After finishing the arrangements during the pandemic, I started over with my recording in another place, this time in Dvořák’s Hall in the Rudolfinum, the most beautiful concert hall in Prague. I had a wonderful recording team this time, and I was very satisfied with the sound. Because of COVID, however, we were not able to record all the pieces at one time. The first session was in June, then we recorded again in August, and finally the CD was completed in January. I’ve never been able to play them in this final transcription on the concert stage yet, so the joy of the birth of my musical child was even greater.

Where can we find your new album?

I recorded my new album Má vlast for Supraphon, which is a Czech recording company that has distribution all over the world. The CD can be ordered abroad from one of Supraphon’s distributors.

For MP3 downloads or for those who are in the Czech Republic, the CD can be purchased directly from Supraphon.

Do you have any other upcoming projects?

Because I am very spontaneous, I keep coming up with new projects. Right at the beginning of last year’s pandemic, I started The Harp Channel platform with videos from the 3rd World Harp Congress in Vienna in 1987. In addition, I began doing interviews every day with harpists, whom I wanted to present not only as artists and harpists, but also as human beings. I did a total of over 60 live interviews. Later I began interviewing other musicians whom I wanted to introduce to our harp world. I believe it is important that harpists are inspired by the talent and artistry in the broader musical world.

And now I finally have some concerts waiting for me. All concerts have been streamed online since October due to COVID restrictions in the Czech Republic, but the contact with the audience is really missing. So I’m looking forward to my upcoming performance of the Concerto for two harps by Maciej Małecki in Slovakia together with the Slovak harpist Katařina Turnerová. In July, I plan to participate in the International Music Festival in Estonia, which hosts world-renowned conductor Paavo Järvi, and then I will have a concert with my students from the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague.

For more information, visit Boušková’s website.

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