"On the whole, working in Norway has been a very rewarding experience", says Czech Jiri Hlinka. He came to Norway in 1972, not as an asylum seeker or a political refugee but on contract with a public institution.
Hlinka was originally an extremely promising piano virtuoso who won a place in the final of the Tchaikowsky competition in Moscow in 1966 and performed as a concert pianist in Vienna, Budapest, Weimar and Moscow. His teachers came from the Czech, German and French schools, while Emil Gilels provided impulses from the Russian school.
In 1969, Hlinka suffered from a chronic infection of the joints. The recommended operation on his arms had disastrous consequences, and his promising virtuoso career was in ruins. In this situation, having decided that his new task in life would be to pass on his knowledge and experience to young pianists, he joined the teaching staff of the Prague Conservatory in 1970. Although it was full of able musicians and good teachers, Hlinka felt that its venerable traditions hampered talent and when the Music Conservatory in Bergen advertised for a new piano teacher, he applied.
In Bergen, an historical cultural centre on the west coast of Norway, he discovered an untapped source of fresh young musicians, eager to learn, whom he could work with and develop. Norway did not offer the same breadth as Prague and, on the whole, he found Norwegian musical standards fairly average. But these was a freshness of talent and, given the opportunity, some of these young musicians could go far and might even reach the world élite.
Musicians regard Hlinka as a demanding teacher who requires a great deal of his pupils, but those who can endure his personal style and his extreme intensity reap rich rewards. He also follows up his pupils with admirable constancy, not only to their débuts but in their later careers. Former pupils maintain that this degree of involvement is quite unique.
After twelve years at the Bergen Conservatory, he also accepted a professorship at the privately run Barratt Due Music Institute in Oslo. His piano classes are increasingly popular among young musicians from abroad. “Gifted foreign students have a very stimulating effect on the Norwegians,” says Hlinka. “It is not true, as some people say, that Norwegian students are too indolent and don't make an effort. Many of them have a totally serious attitude and excellent morale. They understand that you cannot create art without organising your daily routine.”
Leif Ove Andsnes, whom Hlinka has always found extremely inspiring to work with, knows this. Andsnes was always bringing along new music, including Norwegian material which Hlinka was able to approach from a different angle. Hlinka had observed a great deal of dilettantism in the performance of Norway's own repertoire of piano music, a phenomenon he recognised from his own country's sleepy repetitions of Dvňrák and Smetana. Because he came from abroad, Hlinka had a different understanding of some of Grieg's phrasing than the usual “Norwegian” interpretation and was able to give his students new insights into well-known works.
Jiri Hlinka, who is married to a Norwegian and lives on an island outside Bergen, has many plans for the development of Norwegian piano music. He is highly esteemed by those who are aware of the efforts made by this uncompromising artist and he has been awarded many prizes.
More important to him, however, is the unreserved support and recognition he receives from his pupils.