Mácal began violin lessons with his father at the age of four. He later attended the Brno Conservatory and the Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts, where he graduated in 1960 with top honors. He became the principal conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra and conducted both symphonic concerts and operas. He won the 1965 International Conducting Competition in Besançon, France, and the 1966 Dimitri Mitropoulos Competition in New York, under the direction of Leonard Bernstein. Leaving behind a promising career in Czechoslovakia, he left the country after the Soviet-led invasion of 1968 crushed the Prague Spring, finding work first at the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne, followed by the Radio Orchestra of Hanover. He made an impressive London debut in February 1969 when he led the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, as a last minute replacement for Constantin Silvestri, in a dazzling performance at the Royal Festival Hall, London of Richard Strauus Don Quixote, with cello soloist Paul Tortelier and viola Mary Samuel, providing the role of Sancho Panza.
Mácal was appointed Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for a three-year contract, beginning with the 1986 season. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation had agreed at the outset to adjust Mácal's fee so that he would not be adversely affected by the fluctuating Australian dollar, or in his tax arrangements, and any loss would be borne by the ABC. Shortly after taking up his appointment in March 1986, he asked to be released from his contract from the end of the first year, and this was agreed to. But in July 1986, with five concerts of his first season still to come, he left the country without explanation or even informing the ABC.
Mácal became music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in 1986. He took that orchestra on a critically acclaimed East Coast tour in 1989, which included performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and Carnegie Hall in New York. He made a very popular recording of Má vlast by Bedřich Smetana for Telarc Records in 1991. During his tenure in Milwaukee, the orchestra's concerts were broadcast on more than 300 radio stations.
Mácal left Milwaukee to become Music Director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) in September 1993. Delos International recorded Antonín Dvořák's Stabat Mater in the fall of 1994. In 1995, he made Dolby Surround recordings of the Symphony No. 2 in C minor and the suite from the ballet The Red Poppy by Reinhold Glière. He concluded his NJSO tenure in 2002 and took on an emeritus title with the orchestra subsequently.
In 1977, Mácal made his own orchestral arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky's piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition. Note to Edward Johnson - "I have never written a note or orchestration of my own"—Zdenek Mácal 20 April 1996. Incorrectly listed in John Holmes's "Conductors on Record." In 2006, Mácal made a brief appearance in the Japanese drama series Nodame Cantabile, based on the manga by Tomoko Ninomiya, during scenes shot in Prague. He played the main character's childhood mentor, conductor Sebastiano Vieira, a role he recently returned to for the two special episodes filmed in 2007 and broadcast on 4 and 5 January 2008.
- Los Angeles Times, 30 July 1986, Conductor Makes Sudden Australian Departure
- Telarc Records liner notes
- Delos liner notes
- Leslie Kandell (21 January 2001). "New Jersey Symphony Begins to Consider Life Without Macal". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-09-09.
- Matthew Westphal (11 September 2007). "Angry Over Bad Review, Conductor Zdenek Mácal Abruptly Quits Czech Philharmonic". Playbill Arts. Retrieved 2007-09-13.
Christoph von Dohnányi
| Chief Conductor, WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne
| Music Director, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra
| Music Director, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra