Czech it out

Prague, nicknamed “The City of 100 Spires,” is well known for its churches, castles, and squares. It attracts tourists in masses and the number of annual international visitors to the city equals its population about five times over, making it the fifth most visited city in Europe.

Stroll down any street in Prague to enjoy alternating colors of architecturally uniform buildings, encounter churches with towering steeples, and happen upon stunning city views. Prague’s food and drink scene must not go unmentioned, as restaurants of nearly every cuisine fill the city; beer is drunk copiously, and trendy cocktail bars occupy alleys, basements, and every unexpected place.

Unfortunately, Prague’s music scene often gets overlooked. The Czech have a long history of producing classical music, and the Czech Republic has produced several famous composers. During many years under communist rule, the Czech relied on music as means of expression despite the limitations imposed by communist law and censorship.

Today, music bars and jazz clubs fill the city in what seems like a celebration of the freedom to listen. And classical music still permeates Czech culture. The Prague Symphony Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Prague Chamber Orchestra, and Prague Philharmonia all perform regularly to sold out venues. Prague even hosts several music festivals including “Prague Spring,” the Czech Republic’s largest celebration of classical music.

Pietari Inkinen led the Prague Symphony Orchestra in performing Má Vlast on the evenings of Jan. 4 and 5. “Má Vlast” (or “My Country”) is a set of six symphonic poems composed between the years of 1874 to 1879 by Bed?ich Smetana.

Each poem is about a different locale or historical event which occurred in the Czech Republic. They debuted one at a time as they were composed but are now played successively.

Smetena led a troubled life for a composer, as he became deaf after composing the first poem. Luckily, Smetena’s passion for music prevailed and he went on to compose the five remaining poems.

The Prague Symphony Orchestra’s execution of “Má Vlast” was graceful and gripping. The first poem, “Vyšehrad,” began with the romantic plucking of harp strings by two players in perfect unison. A warm and deep brass background, soft and rhythmic trumpet, and eventually the strings joined inconspicuously to create a natural crescendo to the statement of the theme which would return in later poems.

The juxtaposition of the quiet, emotional parts and the bold, hair-raising brass statements was very memorable. My partiality to big brass sound is what made Vyšehrad my personal favorite of the evening.

The second poem, titled “Vltava,” is Smetena’s most famous tune. Knowing beforehand the piece’s purpose of depicting the Vltava river flowing through the Czech countryside, it was easy to feel especially imaginative during this poem. The dance-like beat flowed in the background as the audience was transported to magical and mysterious lands.

The third poem, “Šárka,” started out with a high-drama rumbling of the timpani and brass attack as the strings created a scene of distress. The tune transformed into a lovely melody, then turned melancholy again with a lonely and saddening clarinet solo, and closed with a determinedly triumphant brass feature.

Post-performance, I gained a greater understanding of the meaning of the poem when I learned that it depicts Czech legend Šárka tying herself to a tree, being saved by a knight, gaining his trust, and then calling on her friends to kill the knight and his comrades.

The fourth and fifth poems were played with no break in between. The fourth, “Z ?eských luh? a háj?,” had an ambient sound with a very repetitive tune.

The fifth poem, “Tábor,” began darkly with what seemed like calls for help from the high brass in the form of four repeating notes which would carry on throughout the poem. The orchestra successfully portrayed the feelings of doom and distress.

And “Blaník,” the sixth and final poem, resolved the strife conveyed in the fifth. The themes from both “Tábor” and “Vltava” returned, tying up the stories of Czech history neatly into one powerful ending.

There was a particular feeling of uniqueness to the performance because of the music’s connection to the history and land of the Czech Republic. The audience was filled with families and music lovers of all ages, and only a few tourists attended.

The performance was held in one of the symphony’s regular venues called the Municipal House. Placed on a plot of land previously used for the King’s Court, this building was completed in 1912 with the goal of representing the Czech kingdom’s capital in an outstanding way.

The exterior architecture is elaborate and accented with seafoam green embellishments, and the inside showcases beautiful paintings and obscure light fixtures and marble colors. The Municipal House looked even more magnificent on this particular evening as snow lightly fell and the audience hurried inside to escape the cold.

The scene was set for an unforgettable evening straying from the usual visit to the symphony. The atmosphere, the venue, the attendees, the symphonic poems, the conductor, and the musicians all combined to create a rare and memorable experience.

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