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CZECH IT OUT

St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble brings Czech music to Brooklyn Museum

for The Brooklyn Paper

Although Leos Janacek’s masterly opera, "The Makropulos Case," was recently heard at the Brooklyn Academy of Music courtesy of the Glyndebourne Festival, most listeners are unfamiliar with the glorious music of the former Czech Republic.

But that’s all changing, thanks in part to the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, whose "Festival of Czech Music" is in full swing.

As part of its ongoing Signature Series at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble is presenting a superb combination of Czech masters. On Sunday, in the museum’s Cantor Auditorium, the ensemble will perform chamber music by Janacek, Antonin Dvorak and Antonin Reicha, another acclaimed Czech composer of the 18th century whose music has been overshadowed, not only by his later and more famous countrymen, but by his friend and contemporary, Joseph Haydn.

Reicha, who spent much of his composing career living in Paris, wrote music as graceful and charming as many native Parisian composers. His Quartet No. 2 for flute and strings is one of six that he published as his Opus 98, all directly inspired by Haydn himself.

Although Janacek’s most renowned compositions are from later in life - he was that rare composer who didn’t reach full maturity until he had been at it for years, and then strung together several masterworks - his Suite for Strings is an early piece, from his mid-20s. Unlike the later works, which all have the stamp of individual genius, this suite wears its influences boldly and baldly, from the Wagner’s opera "Lohengrin" to the operas of Janacek’s compatriot, Bedrich Smetana.

The Dvorak work on the program, the Serenade for Winds in D Minor, was written in 1878 when the budding master was just gaining fame outside of his homeland. It too draws on obvious influences: Dvorak’s own time spent in a village band and the grand Bohemian wind serenade tradition.

The St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble concert at the Brooklyn Museum of Art should then prod Brooklyn music lovers across the East River for Lincoln Center’s concurrent Great Performers Czech music series. "From the Homeland: A Festival of Czech Music" is a multimedia event that includes orchestral concerts, chamber music and song recitals, films, lectures and a one-of-a-kind theatrical staging.

With the return of the London Symphony Orchestra to Avery Fisher Hall under the direction of Sir Colin Davis, Lincoln Center’s Czech series may just reach its considerable musical peak April 29-May 5.

The Londoners will perform some of the large-scale Czech works that are seldom heard today, including Janacek’s thrilling "Taras Bulba" and "Glagolitic Mass," Dvorak’s thunderous "Te Deum," Eighth Symphony and Violin Concerto - with none other than Sarah Chang as the soloist - and the luxurious Rhapsody Concerto for Viola and Orchestra of Bohuslav Martinu, another brilliant Czech composer of the first half of the 20th century, and the one with the most cosmopolitan musical outlook: he lived in Paris for awhile, as well as the United States. (Paul Silverthorne is the violist in the Martinu work.)

Also on the boards at Lincoln Center are two biographical films, "The Lion with a White Mane" (about Janacek) and "Antonin Dvorak, a Documentary" (both April 23, Walter Reade Theater); a Czech music symposium (April 28, Kaplan Penthouse); the American debut of the exciting young Czech mezzo Magdelena Kozena (May 7, Walter Reade Theater), singing songs of her countrymen, the by now familiar triumvirate of Dvorak, Janacek and Martinu; and the New York premiere of an audacious staging of the shattering Janacek song-cycle "Diary of One Who Vanished," in a new English translation by poet Seamus Heaney (May 31, June 1 and 2, John Jay Theater).

The Janacek cycle will be sung by the superb British tenor Ian Bostridge and mezzo Ruby Philogene, accompanied by pianist Julius Drake. Daring director Deborah Warner stages what should be unstageable - these dramatic, emotional songs were not written to be acted out - but word from abroad suggests these artists may actually have deepened the meaning of one of the great musical works of this past century.

Thanks to the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and Lincoln Center, the largely unheralded riches of Czech music are starting to be re-discovered and savored.

 

The Orchestra of St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble will perform at the Brooklyn Museum of Art [200 Eastern Parkway, Cantor Auditorium] at 2 pm on April 22. Tickets are $20, $15 seniors, students and members of the Brooklyn Museum. For tickets, call the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at (212) 594-6100, ext. 111. For more information, visit the Web site www.stlukes.cc. For more information about the Great Performers program call (212) 875-5937 or visit www.lincolncenter.org on the Web.

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