Once again it's time for the Prague Spring International Music Festival - one of Central Europe's major musical events - now in its 59th year. The festival always opens with Bedrich Smetana's patriotic masterpiece, My Country, this year performed by the Prague Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of the Czech émigré conductor, Jiri Kout. With just two days left till the festival begins, I continue a Radio Prague tradition of recent years, by talking to the festival director, Roman Belor about some of the highlights of the festival.
"We have concentrated the programme of the festival on Antonin Dvorak. We are promoting all nine of Dvorak's symphonies, including the rather underestimated first four symphonies."
Some people would say that the early symphonies are youthful experiments and that maybe they're not worth playing.
"Yes, Dvorak himself underestimated a bit these works. Nevertheless my opinion is that there are a lot of authors who are dreaming to have just one of Dvorak's early symphonies on the list of their works [laughs], so they are worth playing."
There is one other very special part of the Dvorak centenary celebration, which is that his great-grandson, the violinist Josef Suk is going to be coming out of semi-retirement, and I gather that he is going to be performing at the festival.
"We are very happy about this. Josef Suk has more or less finished his active career, nevertheless he is making an exception for the Prague Spring festival, and we are very proud that he has accepted the invitation to play a recital on the 19th May, totally dedicated to the works of Antonin Dvorak. Mr Suk and the pianist Marian Lapsansky are going to play romantic pieces, the Violin Sonata in F-Major, the Ballade in D-Minor, the Nocturne in B-Major and Mazurek. Fans of Dvorak's violin work have to come!"
When people talk about Czech classical music, it nearly always seems to be Smetana, Dvorak, Janacek, Martinu. Have you got something interesting from outside the famous four?
"We have invited a very interesting ensemble, the Ebony Band from the Netherlands, and this group of musicians - almost all of them are members of the famous Concertgebouw Orchestra - are concentrated on European avant-garde music. We are extremely happy that they are coming to Prague to pay tribute to Czech avant-garde music, with a special emphasis on E. F. Burian. He was an extremely important Czech avant-garde composer and also a theatre producer, founder of the famous theatre "D", and the concert is going to be held at the very same place, where Burian was active as a theatre producer - the Theatre Archa - the former D-Theatre."
And this year, one of the things I noticed in the programme, which really rather appealed to me, was a series of late evening concerts that I gather are intended to attract younger more relaxed audiences, who maybe won't turn up in a bow-tie, but in a more relaxed atmosphere. Can you tell me something about this series of concerts?
"We are using a subtitle for this small series of concerts, describing them as 'concerts without a break and without a jacket'. It had a certain tradition before the First World War, and we were inspired by the so-called 'Five-Pound Concerts" of the Edinburgh International Festival. I have visited the festival twice and have found that this festival's concerts have a special atmosphere. We are trying to recreate it here in Prague."
And Czech audiences will be delighted to hear Magdalena Kozena, the great Czech mezzo-soprano, whom we don't tend to hear so much these days back home, because she's making such a career for herself around the world.
"On the one hand we are very happy to have such an important star in the world "heaven" of classical music, nevertheless, we are poor, because she returns home to Prague and the Czech Republic very rarely. So this concert is going to be a chance."
What's she going to be singing?
"She's going to sing a mixture of European and Czech music, so this will be - I would say - the European Union in music."
And you've got some premieres coming up as well. Every year at the Prague Spring there are some Czech premieres, one of them, in fact, composed by one of my colleagues from Czech Radio, Lukas Hurnik who has composed a Tea Cantata!
...who is well known because of the Nagano ice-hockey opera [premiered at the National Theatre last month]!
"Exacltly. When we asked Martin to write a piece for the Prague Spring festival we didn't expect him to be an ice-hockey opera star! And the third one is a representative of the older generation of composers, Pavel Blatny, an extremely interesting example of a composer looking for cross-over inspiration. In the past some of his compositions were inspired by jazz and rock music, but this time he's totally concentrated on Erben, the famous romantic poet of the 19th century.
And finally, what are you looking forward to most at this year's Prague Spring?
"I think the most important thing for myself is a production of Saint Ludmila, an important oratorio by Dvorak, underestimated around the world. Maybe this is caused by the fact that it is sung in Czech. This oratorio is full of excellent Dvorak music, and we will have a production by the Czech Philharmonic, the Prague Philharmonic Choir and a series of interesting soloists, including Mesdames Urbanova, Fink and others."
Magic Carpet is Radio Prague's monthly music magazine that looks at music from Czech, Moravian and Silesian towns and villages. The programme covers a wide selection of genres, from traditional folk to the exotic and experimental.
It is presented by Petr Doruzka, one of the Czech Republic's foremost music journalists.
18.07.2004: The history of the Prague band Jablkon reaches deep into the past. In 1977 they started as an acoustic trio with two guitars and percussion and their music was in stark contrast to every existing fashion.Jablkon blended instruments with voices in very unorthodox way. The musicians invented a wide spectrum of howls, wails, screams, grunts and other deeply human sounds, and used just the right amount of this vocal seasoning to build a pattern, a momntum of a non-verbal message, or just a joke. Their music was like a well crafted building with a wild back yard; in the large scale architecture you can feel delicate melodies and musical forms of a sophisticated European origin.As years went by, the classical elements of their music became more apparent in 90's, when the band played with the classical violinist Jaroslav Sveceny, and made a rare appearance with a symphonic orchestra. Last year, the band celebrated the first 25 years of it's existence. On a memorable concert in the Prague Archa theatre, Jablkon performed with the Moravian Symphony orchestra and other guest players. Magic Carpet features the live CD from this concert.
15.08.2004: In the era of major companies and global pop it takes a lot of courage to be independent. The fretless bass guitar player Sina and her partner, guitarist Daniel Salontay, formed Slnko Records in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. In the beginning, they burned the CDs on their home computer, packaged them and sent by mail - but with growing success of their company this became harder more difficult. With their band, Dlhe Diely, they were one of the brightest surprises of last years Colours of Ostrava festival. Magic Carpet features both Dlhe Diely and Sina's solo albums.
For copyright reasons we are unable to archive the programmes in audio, but here at least are a few words about some of the recordings featured recently in the programme.
23.5.2004:At the beginning of May the Czech nation celebrated joining the European Union. In Prague a big festival was held: The United Islands, with live music played on the 10 islands on the course of the Vltava River in the city. Yet the final concert took place on the mainland, with the Gypsy Kings, the world famous band from Southern France topping the bill, plus two promising local Roma bands as support, Gulo Car and Bengas. Why are the Gypsy bands so popular? Is this just a short lived fashion, or are Czech audiences bored with the non-Roma mainstream? And what can the Roma bands offer to international audiences?
20.6.2004:For generations the zither was one of the best loved instruments in Czech households. But now the delicate wooden box with a generous array of strings looks more like an antiquity than an instrument people play. The decline of zither in the Czech lands started with independence from the Habsburg Empire. The instrument was often identified as a German import, and the next generation choose to play guitar instead. Now the zither is coming back. One of the most gifted Czech players, Michal Müller, chose to study the instrument at the Vienna conservatory. He graduated 3 years ago, and now he's the one and only Czech zither teacher with a diploma - and also an adventurous and prolific musician.
25.4.2004:The six-member group Quakvarteto, led by the violinist Dorothea Kellerova, relishes moving between different musical styles with wit and irony, mixing piano and violin with woodwind, tuba and vocals. In Petr Doruzka's Magic Carpet we hear from their latest CD, adapting Chick Corea's Children's Songs.
28.3.2004:With village music in decline, Petr Doruzka introduces us to one of the
Czech Republic's most original and imaginative groups bringing new life to
traditional folk songs - the Moberg Ensemble.
Forgotten Czech net bag makes a comeback
Czechs and Germans in 1930s Czechoslovakia: a complex picture
Iconic Czech brands that survived competition from the West after the fall of communism
Škoda unveils 4th-generation Octavia ahead of model’s 60th anniversary
15 years later – was ending military service right move for Czech Republic?