Czech cellist spearheading revival

Czech cellist Frantisek Brikcius takes a bow during the  launch of his Weinberger Tour at Prague's Spanish Synagogue. (Dinah A. Spritzer)

Czech cellist Frantisek Brikcius takes a bow during the launch of his Weinberger Tour at Prague’s Spanish Synagogue. (Dinah A. Spritzer)

PRAGUE (JTA) – Jewish composers from pre-World War II Czechoslovakia have a new champion. Thanks
to an ebullient young cellist, lesser-known works by little-remembered
maestros like Jaromir Weinberger are getting their due in the land of
their birth.Frantisek Brikcius launched the Weinberger Tour in mid-April at Prague’s Spanish Synagogue. The
performance series by Brikcius and pianist Tomas Visek features three
works by Weinberger (1896-1967), a sonata by Erwin Schulhoff
(1894-1942), a lamentation by Berlin-born James Simon (1880-1944) and a
new work by contemporary composer Irena Kosikova. “It’s very
important to do this work. First, it’s just great music,” the
ponytailed Brikcius explained over coffee at Prague’s stunning
late-19th century Rudofinum concert hall. Brikcius will be
playing the tour, which he conceived in honor of the 40th anniversary
of Weinberger’s death, over the next six months in Czech towns and
cities. Why Weinberger?”You have to understand that
Weinberger was not played here for a very, very long time,” Brikcius
explained, “even though he was more popular than Smetana before the
war.” Bedrich Smetana authored “The Moldau,” or “The Vltava” in Czech – the song played on
every Czech Airlines flight that sounds much like “Hatikvah,” Israel’s
national anthem. The works of many prewar Jewish composers
went unplayed for four decades under the communist regime for a variety
of ideological reasons. That’s why most Czechs today have no
familiarity with the compositions of Weinberger, who also is little
known to American audiences. That troubles Brikcius, who
lamented that Czechs and tourists have little to choose from but
watered-down commercial fare in a city that was once one of Europe’s
greatest sources of new music.”At some places here, the same Mozart works are played every day, twice a day. That stops being music,” he said.It’s
hard to pinpoint Weinberger’s style, though Debussy comes to mind. The
works Brikcius plays in the Moorish-style synagogue combined heavy and
light, evocative of winter turning into spring, imbuing a sense of
harmony, sweetness and depth. Brikcius declined to compare
Weinberger with other composers but called his style “romantic.” The
only Weinberger piece that appears on the repertoire of international
orchestras is an opera, “Svanda the Bagpiper.” Weinberger, who
fled Prague in 1937 before the Nazis arrived and ended up in St.
Petersburg, Fla., composed more than 100 works. He suffered from brain
cancer as well as financial trouble and committed suicide, with his
wife taking the same route a year after his death. The ties
between the composers Brikcius chose for his tour are as
thought-provoking as his playing. Schulhoff was rediscovered by
classical music audiences about a decade ago. The composer, who sought
too late to immigrate to the Soviet Union in 1941, died of tuberculosis
in Germay’s Walzburg concentration camp.One of the Schulhoff
compositions Brikcius chose reminded one listener of American composer
Aaron Copland and another of a Western movie score. They’re
foot-tapping, fun and clearly predate the composer’s foray into social
realism. The most surprising piece was a heartbreaking lament by Simon on the death of his sister. Simon,
who was in the Terezin transit camp before being sent to his death at
Auschwitz, was unknown to Brikcius until he went to Israel recently for
a music festival devoted to composers interned at Terezin. It was there
that Brikcius met David Bloch, producer and artistic director of the
Terezin Music Memorial Project, who introduced him to Simon’s works. Brikcius’
commitment to share Simon’s works with new listeners is consistent with
a previous tour, Seven Candles, that promoted the works of the
so-called Terezin composers. Brikcius will revive Seven Candles with
the Talich Orchestra on May 10 at the Terezin Memorial.Kosikova,
meanwhile, is the daughter of a famous non-Jewish Czech philosopher
persecuted by the Communist regime who, like Brikcius’ grandfather,
survived Terezin.Brikcius, who is not Jewish, has put together
other musical tours that focused on obscure yet intriguing themes, an
approach uncommon in a former Eastern Bloc country where patronage for
such projects is nearly non-existent.The cellist has both Czech
and international credentials: He graduated from Prague’s Janacek
Academy of Music and Performing Arts and studied at the Toho Gakuen Academy in Japan, and
has taken master classes with notable teachers across Europe. In
2000, Brikcius won second prize at London’s International String
Competition. He has numerous commercial endorsements and some public
funding, but not the support that would allow him to take his projects
to the United States.Brikcius is now thinking about a new
Jewish-related project for 2009 for the 50th anniversary of the death
of Jiri Weil, author of “Life with a Star,” a novella about Jewish life
in Prague just before the concentration-camp transports. Brikcius
envisions a ballet, a piece for cello and singing. However the project
turns out, Brikcius’ core ambition remains to make lesser-known works
of music “more accessible to the public.”

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