Prof. Jiri Hlinka At His Birthday Five Years Ago. Photo: Thor Brødreskift

In celebration of Jiří Hlinka

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Since the Czech pianist arrived in Norway in 1972, he has contributed to shaping Norwegian music life. This year, his birthday will be celebrated at Bergen International Festival.

March 20, 2024

Jiří Hlinka is referred to as Norway's great piano key wizard. He has received the King's Medal of Merit in gold for his contribution to Norwegian music life and has been teacher to some of Norways most prominent pianists. 

The piano legend turns 80 this spring. 

– When he enters the room, the whole room is filled with a great energy. It spreads to those around him. As his student, you feel motivated to perform and make a good effort, says his former student, Håvard Gimse. 

The jubilee will be celebrated during this year's festival with a masterclass concert where both a selection of Jiří's former students and young masterclass participants, will join together on stage.

The mentor of piano stars

Jiří Hlinka was born in Czechoslovakia in 1944, and had an promising career as a pianist. Already as a teenager, he performed with several leading orchestras in Europe and had renowned pianists like the Russian Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels as his teachers.

In 1969, the young pianist had to put his solo career on hold after he developed a chronic illness in both hands.

– It's really sad about Jiří, that he came to Norway after injuring his hands. At the same time, it's a gift for us that even though he played some concerts, teaching was what he was meant to do, says pianist Christian Ihle Hadland.

He was Jiří's student in 1999, first at the Grieg Academy in Bergen and later in Oslo. Ihle Hadland was in his teens at the time and had already heard several rumors about a Czech teacher who expelled students from his classes.

– From the very first lesson, however, I only experienced him as extremely warm-hearted and with an enthusiasm that I have still never seen the likes of in any other teacher or person. There was absolutely nothing dry about it. Statements came out like they were shot from a catapult, says Ihle Hadland, and continues:

– Jiří's classes felt important, yet terribly fun at the same time. Being able to create that combination, that's gold for a teacher.

As if your life depends on it

Pianist Håvard Gimse began working with his mentor after a period of illness, during which the piano remained untouched. He explains that his time with Jiří helped him return to the piano.

– Before I went on stage, he often said to me: Play like a lion. It's something I have carried with me ever since, says Gimse. 

Håvard Gimse. Photo: Ilja Hendel

Both Gimse and Ihle Hadland describe how Jiří conveyed a contagious passion, where music was to be performed as if it were a matter of life and death.

– In his lessons, it felt like playing the piano, the music you were playing at that moment, was the most important thing in the world. There is nothing that comes close to the intensity of that moment, says Ihle Hadland. 

Gimse recalls an episode from a rehearsal with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, where he was to perform Grieg's A minor concerto and was struggling with nerves.

– During the rehearsal, Jiří was up in the gallery while I was working with the orchestra. Through his body language, he managed to explain how I should play technically to become less nervous and to focus correctly. It's something I'll never forget. There was something about this rehearsal that stuck with me, and it's a classic example of how Jiří was. When he stood and waved his arms up in the gallery, I immediately understood what he meant, Gimse recounts. 

During the Bergen International Festival 2024, you can see Håvard Gimse and Christian Ihle Hadland play at the free stage at Festallmenningen.

– An unconventional teacher

– When you work closely with someone over time, you get close to each other. The artistic dedication, learning early on that something truly is at stake when expressing oneself, has inspired me greatly, says Ingrid Røynesdal. 

Røynesdal is currently the director of the National Museum and formerly the chief of the Oslo Philharmonic, but in the early 2000s, she played the piano with Jiří at the Barratt Due Institute of Music in Oslo.

Ingrid Røynesdal. Photo: Ina Wesenberg/Nasjonalmuseet

She explains that she still finds inspiration from her old piano teacher.

– Jiří has a remarkable musical talent, and he had high ambitions for his students. He was, in many ways, an unconventional teacher, but certainly an inspiration and a character that leaves a mark when experienced up close. I found that he had a very intuitive approach to music. It was fascinating in itself to see and be inspired by, she says. 

In honor of his birthday celebration, former students Leif Ove Andsnes, Håvard Gimse, Christian Ihle Hadland, and Geir Botnen will participate in the Masterclass concert at Troldhaugen.

Gimse and Andsnes, along with Bertrand Chamayou, will also conduct open masterclasses at the Rasmussen Collections.

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