Czech Cellist Spreads Works of Little-known Jewish Composers

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, the song played on every Czech Airlines flight that sounds much like Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem.

The works of many pre-war 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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