Karel Komarek may seem like an unlikely patron of classical music. A businessman who got his start in oil and gas, at 45, he is a relatively young audience member for music hall’s graying audiences. Yet Komarek, who is worth some $1.4 billion, has gradually been funneling millions to support Czech culture – and revive the nation’s interest in classical music.
“I’m not a professional in music but a couple years ago we were looking to support other activities and music, and we felt the heritage of the past made it a great place to help,” Komarek explained. In 2008, Komarek cofounded Dvořák’s Prague Music Festival, a major classical music event dedicated to spreading the work of Czech national treasure, composer Antonín Dvořák.
“In my view, he is the best composer ever and we’re lucky he is Czech,” Komarek jokes over the phone, after recently visiting New York’s Carnegie Hall to hear his favorite Dvořák composition, Symphony No. 9, “From The New World.”
Komarek, whose is the second-youngest of five known Czech billionaires in the world, founded his KKCG Group in the early 1990s as an oil extraction company. “It was quite a challenging after the communist regime to start a business,” Komarek says, recalling the then Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution and subsequent country split. “When I was starting my business I was the warehouse technician and the driver in the mornings and director of the company all day – I didn’t have enough employees or money to pay them.” Komarek’s company acquired Moravské naftové doly (MND) and took it across borders (today MND operates in Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Italy). Today KKCG owns assets worth some $2.5 billion; its businesses include gas, tourism, national lotteries plus investments in tech and biomedicine.
Komarek says it is thanks to the former Czechoslovakia’s communist regime that Dvořák, who worked for much of his career in the U.S., was not given his due respect. Now Komarek is on a mission to educate and engage Czech listeners in a multi-day festival in the nation’s capital which has held 130 concerts, entertaining over 100,000 listeners.
“This year, the festival was the biggest attendance ever and we really focused on young people,” Komarek explained. “One of the aims is to support Czech culture, so selling it to youngsters very important.”
To that end, the programming brought together much-loved and newer works, including Dvořák’s first opera, Alfreda, which had never been performed in its original version. A trio of young artists also collaborated with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra to perform Dvořák’s most famous works at the Rudolfinum concert hall.
“We want to bring them to the halls and they won’t come to just listen, they have to care about it to be interested,” Komarek explained. It seems to have worked: the festival sold out tickets to all performances.
Komarek has also launched an annual Antonin Dvořák award to Czech artists. (This year’s award went to the conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, Jiří Bělohlávek, who accepted the award in Carnegie Hall last month).
Aside from some private and state investments, the festival is majority financed by Komarek, who says he spends “a couple of million” aiding art and culture annually, donating additional funds to revitalizing parks to bring his yearly giving to some $5 million.
Like the Czech Republic, the U.S. faces a graying and disinterested population. According to a National Endowment of the Art’s recent survey, classical music audiences are on the decline, from 9.3% of adults in 2008 to 8.8% in 2012. In 2012, adults over 55 accounted for 36% of the audience, compared to 33.5% in 2008; adults aged 25-45 reduced attendance while those 65 and up participated most. Komarek hopes to expand to the U.S., in a move that could revive the nation’s interest in Dvořák and its own musical history, from Barber to Cage, Ives to Carter.
Komarek, who splits his time between Europe and the U.S., sees philanthropy as part of his duty. “We don’t want to be just a supporter giving the money and not taking care of the activities,” Komarek explains. “Its part of my life, to do the business and to somehow support and be part of social responsibility.”