I have the great pleasure of writing this, at least part of it, on a moving train cutting through the Bohemian countryside. Central European clichés lay just beyond the window: frost-laden fields, misty rivers, ruined castles, red-brown villages squeezed into narrow valleys, a mangy dog sleeping atop a stone wall. I am having a beer at a time of morning that would be wildly inappropriate at home. The name of the train: Franz Kafka.
My reason for visiting the Czech Republic was to oversee two performances of my Sinfonietta, in the small city of Pardubice, east of Prague. I am at the invitation of their intrepid chamber orchestra and their enthusiastic music director Marek Stilec. This week marks the European premiere of the piece.
Central Europe lies a great distance from any large bodies of water, but despite it towns were formed on the banks of its many mighty rivers. Pardubice lies on the banks of the Elbe, which starts in the central Czech highlands and empties north of Hamburg into the North Sea, half a world away. Founded in 1340, it has an attractive square, a castle, and loads of tiny cafes, shops and the percussive sound of heels on cobblestones. Outside the center, all is industry as the town is Europe’s largest maker of plastic explosives. Factories and soulless Cold War-era apartment buildings sit adjacent to the main road from the west.
My week prior had been a busy one as I was in California with my colleagues and family, which included the warmth of Los Angeles and a trip to the Grammy’s, followed by a short trip to a rainy San Francisco for meetings in the Bay Area. A redeye allowed me 24 hours in New York before boarding yet another plane, an overnight Finnair to Helsinki, whited out due to a blizzard. I landed late morning in Prague with a wicked cold and most of my hearing lost due to the heavy pressure on descent. Marek was there to greet me at Vaclav Havel airport.
After the palm trees and the excess of LA, the little nearby village of Cicovice was likely even more shocking to me. Ancient stone walls, a single road that wends through the hamlet, fish weirs and a smart farmhouse on a lane: an aptly-named restaurant In The Fields. After a warm and satisfying lunch we are off to Pardubice. I’m a horrible passenger in the best of conditions. Add a slow-moving right lane filled with trucks and a left-lane without a speed limit, and I’m pretty miserable. We made it to town at nightfall to begin rehearsals.
The hall, which is also a music conservatory of several floors, is a concrete slab of such indistinction that to describe it would only give some justification for its blandness. But inside is a lovely wooden 400-seat concert hall with fairly surprising sound. Several recordings have been made in this space. After I was to head off, Marek leads the orchestra in a recording session of the Kozeluch symphonies, for Naxos.
The orchestra had been rehearsing my piece and it was clear that Marek knew it inside and out, even finding some errors in the parts – and even, score – which is the worst fear of any composer and a particularly vexing one for this one. Fortunately I had extras of each and they set in to playing it, well I should add. Commissioned by Max Lifchitz and North/South Consonance, that ensemble gave the premiere in the 2010 at Christ & St. Stephens Church in New York. I hadn’t really spent much time with the piece and my work has certainly evolved. I wasn’t in great shape listening. My head was pounding, I could hear little and all I wanted was a nap. Which is what I did in the dressing room afterward, for how long I’m not sure. That night I sweated out the sickness in Marek’s apartment, and felt a bit better the next day.
In the morning I was to transfer to Wenceslas Square, Prague’s long and boisterous plaza. I was proud that – following Marek’s explicit instructions – I could walk to a bus stop a few blocks away, figure out how to pay with Czech crowns that made my jeans sag, disembark at the outermost tube station, and to take the correct train to the center of town. Fortunately for any traveler, there’s usually someone in any situation even more clueless, usually an American speaking loud English.
Marek handled the dress rehearsal without my input so that I could rest and do a bit of work. I was pleased that a friend came down from Leipzig to hear the piece. We met up and had lunch off the square. Marek’s father – Jiri Stilec – near-legendary producer, teacher, record executive – picked us up and whisked us to Pardubice. Marek’s girlfiend – pianist Paola Rapaj – came along as well. As it’s the only place on the road it seems, we stopped at McDonald’s for coffee. There they have a very extensive selection. I only manage to visit a McDonald’s about once a year (and always regret even that frequency) so an espresso macchiato was a real treat.
Marek was pacing the hallways when we arrive, which made sense since the dressing room had four tall and empty energy drinks. Naturally I worried about my precious tempos but I needn’t have worried at all. My friend and I had a drink at a small bar attached to the lobby, which was like stepping into a relic from the Cold War. Loads of old people drinking tall beers and smoking in a dimly-lit place. It could have been sometime in the 1980s. Behind the bar hung a small but easily noticeable hammer and sickle.
Here is where I should describe my reactions to my performance, but I frankly don’t remember it all that well. Tempos were solid as were the transitions, and the three movements – Treadmill, El Efecto Deseado, and High-Wire – went off as I had intended and the level of performance was ten times that of the previous day’s rehearsal. As always in a performance, I obsess over how I would make a piece better and what I might change. I made dozens of mental notes.
I believe that it was Jiri that told me that it’s typical of Czech audiences, especially older ones, to clap slowly and for long periods without a real trace of facial expression or enthusiasm. Perhaps this is a relic of the time of the Iron Curtain as the same behavior could be witnessed in the GDR. The crowd of around 400 seemed to like it, and we celebrated with polevka z jatrove knedlicky, Czech dumpling soup, afterward at a bar around the corner.
My next day was spent in several meetings and on calls around Prague. Since I was feeling a bit better I could explore a bit at night, finding some excellent coffee and taking loads of photos. Prague is just about the most beautiful place I know, especially at night. I went to the State Opera but it was sold out. I made it an early night, wandering back to my hotel to sleep and try to kick my cold.
For the second performance we arrived early. Czech national radio was to be there setting up microphones and the like. It afforded me an opportunity to walk into the old part of the city, just a few hundred meters away but a huge contrast to the rest of Pardubice. A broad square surrounded by quaint coffee places and restaurants, churches, and narrow medieval lanes. Absolutely magical.
The general manager of the Komorní filharmonie Pardubice is a delightful man, Marek Posposil, who had asked me – along with viola soloist Kristina Fialova – to say a few words about our respective works on the program. Kristina played through a blistering performance of the concerto by Zdeněk Lukáš, a Czech composer who died just a few years ago. A sizeable crowd gathered to hear orchestra dramaturg Bohuslav Vítek introduce us and to talk about the two unknown works. A polite crowd listened while he, two Mareks and Kristina rattled on in Czech, me with some helpful interpreters.
That evening’s concert and performance of my work was five times what was experienced on Monday night. The second movement came off beautifully spare and lean, with the horn solo not in the least overloud. More bows, more flowers, and a long, slow ovation from the Czech crowd. I could get used to this.
The rest of my trip was spent in Prague and Munich in a series of meetings, while the orchestra got down to work recording the definitive versions of the Kozeluch symphonies, one of the great overlooked composers that the 18th-century has so many of.
I hope to be back as I’ve been invited to speak in Prague and also in Vienna. I also hope to work with this dynamic orchestra and maestro Stilec again, perhaps in two years. We’re already plotting – perhaps one can hope – a premiere of my mandolin concerto, with a very notable soloist.
In the midst of the trip I very nearly forgot an important milestone: the first time a piece of mine has been recorded a second time. Guitarist Smaro Gregoriadou released her El Aleph recording – on the Delos label no doubt, and which features my Tango Grotesco, a short piece for the instrument that was there at my beginnings as a musician.