Libor Pesek had one of the most important international careers of any Czech conductor during the later decades of the 1900s. Although he began cutting back his activities at the turn of the century, he remains active after stepping down from permanent positions. He is a particular advocate of the music of Josef Suk and Vitezslav Novák.
He attended the Prague Academy of Music, where he was a member of the conducting class of Vaclav Smetacek, the leading Czech conductor of the mid-century years. However, Smetacek's heavy conducting schedule — including copious guest conducting — meant that the professor was away often. (Pesek recalls that his classmate, Zdenek Kosler, coined the joke that went the rounds: "I'm self-taught as a conductor because I was a student of Professor Smetacek.") (Pesek says that as a result of this experience he decided not to teach: "It would have been unfair, as I would have missed three out of four lessons every week."
Instead, he credits the absences from Smetacek's class as forming his technique, because it gave him and his classmates time to attend the rehearsals of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra led by Karel Ancerl, an orchestral perfectionist with a gift for and habit of giving clear explanations to the orchestra of what he wanted and what he was doing. Pesek also credits Ancerl with giving the Czech Philharmonic its highest standards since its golden era under Vaclav Talich. In addition, Ancerl thought it important to give his orchestra exposure to the great conductors of his time, so he brought in as guest conductors, such maestros as George Szell, Charles Münch, Erich Kleiber, and Sir John Barbirolli, all of whom the students had a chance to observe at work.
Pesek graduated in 1956 and immediately set up an ensemble called Prague Chamber Harmony, which he led, took on tours, and recorded with. From this start, he rose through the ranks of small and provincial orchestras: The Sebastian Orchestra, the North Bohemia Orchestra in Teplice, and the Chamber Philharmonic in Pardubice. He led the last of these from 1970 to 1977 and brought it to a nationally recognized high standard. He also worked with the Dvorak Chamber Orchestra and conducted the Frysk Orkester of Leeuwardenu, Netherlands.
During this period, he had the first opportunity to conduct the Czech Philharmonic, in 1972. In 1981 he was appointed permanent conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, while frequently guest conducting throughout Europe, North America, and Japan. He also was, briefly, the conductor of the Slovak Philharmonic. In 1987, he became the Principal Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, in England. He stepped down from his position with the Czech Philharmonic in 1990. However, at that time he kept his musical ties to Prague by becoming principal guest conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra. He toured extensively, and appeared as guest conductor with many major orchestras and at the leading music festivals. He resigned from the Royal Liverpool Orchestra in 1997, expressing an intention to slow down the pace of his professional life. The orchestra named him lifetime conductor laureate, which will allow him to conduct four weeks a year.
Pesek has recorded prolifically, making well over forty recordings for the Czech companies Supraphon and Panton alone. In addition, he recorded with the international companies Erato, EMI, CBS, and Virgin Classics. The latter company recorded him with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in a series including exceptional performances of tone poems by Suk and Novak.
Pesek has received numerous honors, including the Czech Classic Prize and an Honorary Knighthood of the British Empire.