Czech Nonet Successful in Italy

Firenze (by our exclusive correspondent): Already for the sixth time the Czech Nonet, a Czech Philharmonic Orchestra chamber ensemble, is giving guest performances in Italy. It has become one of the most popular ensembles in this country. During their present tour in Italy which is going to be extended by a stop in Austria, the Czech Nonet performed in the Pergola Theatre in Firenze for the first time. This famous metropolis of Italian art prepared great ovations for the Czech artists. One of the most successful pieces of the program, a work by a contemporary composer Jirí Jaroch, even had to be repeated after the concert. Jaroch’s Children’s Suite was a great success. Apart from this one, the Czech Nonet performed the works by Bohuslav Martinu, Witold Lutoslawski and Louis Spohr. The concert was broadcast by the Italian Radio. (Lidová demokracie, the country, 26 November 1960)

The Czech Nonet, a Czech Philharmonic Orchestra chamber ensemble, gave their first concert of their tour in the Netherlands. At the Leyden concert the Czech instrumentalists got a standing ovation. (Rudé právo, the country, 16 February 1961)

During the Nonet’s extended tours of Latin & South American and Spain, extended articles of these travels appeared in Czechoslovakia of which excerpts are presented here. It is interesting to note the authors somewhat daring use of terms such as ‘no borders, no iron curtains for music’ and colorful references such as 12 year-old Indian ‘archeologists’ offering trinkets proclaimed authentic by their ‘scholar’ – the embassy chauffer.

60,000 kms with Czech Music through Latin America

One of the Baroque palaces in Valdstejnská Street, the Lesser Town, is the seat of those who export Czech music. They send our artists all over the world and they invite the foreign ones. Long weeks and months they correspond, make arrangements and finally sign the contracts in order to – mostly at the last minute – send our artists abroad, passport in hand. Of the few people who know the first and last details for our touring concert artists is the Music and Theatre Agency. And if there are any troubles, it is this Baroque building where they take the blame. However, the artists keep the laurels for themselves…

And that is how HUDAG, all our artists’ manager, after a long negotiation with a Spanish agency Daniel, sent the Czech Nonet, a Czech Philharmonic Orchestra chamber ensemble, to Latin America. The Nonetists have traveled all over the world for 37 years but they have not gone for such a long journey yet. Their longest tour so far, to South Africa, was half the distance in comparison with the tour they set for in the beginning of May. 60,000 kms within nine weeks and 31 concerts in 8 states. Sober facts, but how many experiences, how much suffering, fighting off as well as the joyful emotion over the final applause. Which country accepted the artists best? Where is the most sophisticated audience? What was enjoyed most? Dvorák, Prokofiev, Spohr or the most popular chamber work, the Beethoven Septet in E flat Major? It is hard to answer all this in brief. There were countries that did not give us a visa but in those we could enter, we learnt again and again there are no borders, no iron curtains for music and people applaud, according to their temperament, the Czech music as well as their interprets with enthusiasm. Like before, in Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Peru, Columbia, Cuba, Mexico, and the Dutch Antilles we showed our contemporary authors, here – except for B Martinu – nearly unknown. It is a whole range of names: V. Dobiás, Zd. Folprecht, Al. Hába, J. Jaroch, I. Krejcí, J. Novák and K. Srom. From place to place, the organizers were against the Czech Modernism, in other places they were welcome it, and they were eager to learn about Dvorák’s and Smetana’s students.

The Nonetists saw many towns but the most beautiful one welcomed us right at the beginning. All those who say Rio de Janeiro is the queen of cities are right. You may doubt it while walking down the streets in the city centre looking at the hillsides being covered with the wooden huts of the poor or if you see the grotesque, old-fashioned trams, galloping through the streets. You will be surely taken by the panorama if you walk up the 700 m high mountain of Corcovado, where the huge Jesus Christ statue overlooks the beauty of the town as well as the huts of poverty.

From here you can have the unforgettable view on a number of bays, wooded hills, beaches, and the huge lake right in the middle of the town. Rio is the queen of cities mostly for its position and the natural scenery.

Uruguay is a little, not very rich country, but the Czech music, thanks to the local conductor Protasi, can be heard rather often here. We were welcome by the local press so warm-heartedly and given so much attention as hardly anywhere. The critics titled their critiques rather enthusiastically: The Czech Nonet Triumph – The Outstanding Mastery – A Memorable Concert. There is an unexpected interest for our concerts in Peru. Being the richest country in the ancient times, Peru nowadays belongs to the poorest countries in South America. The Rocky Mountains, the sand shores where the verdure is rather scarce. Sad was the view from the plane onto the vast country, as well as the later one, on children begging and mothers breast-feeding in the streets. We were thus all the more surprised by the rich concert life and interest in chamber music.

How much excitement outside the concert halls we experienced on the Mexican pyramids and at the God Quetzalcoatles’s excavations in Teotihuacán! We reached the top of the Sun Pyramid which the Toltecs earthed against the aggressive Aztecs. However, the Aztecs uncovered it and organized the ritual murders there. They extracted the heart from the victims alive and then these were offered to gods. The stone Toltec art witnesses saw the fall of the Aztec realm; they were earthed again, this time by the Cortez conquistadors whose descendants are at present unearthing them step by step and so increasing the tourism. Accompanied by little, twelve-year-old Indian ’archeologists’ who dig off their own bat clandestinely or who skillfully make the forgeries which a foreigner can hardly distinguish from the Teotihuacán little heads, sculptures or vase decorations which have been earthed for up to a thousand years, we experience another excitement. For a little money we can obtain a Montezuma artist’s product or a forgery by which we support a little and skillful Indian from a nearby village of San Juan. We hope we have the originals. We enjoy them and our ’scholarly’ advisor – the embassy chauffeur – supports our opinion.

Cuba was the country in Latin America we got to know most thoroughly. Twenty-five days we spent in Havana and we always went to the provinces just for a short time. Havana is a town which not only gave the name to the most famous Spanish dance of habanera and also it mirrors the former luxurious life of this extended Florida. The revolution has changed a lot here, which we felt at the concerts, too. The audience was people of all social classes. Many came more out of their fondness of Czechoslovaks than out of the interest in chamber music itself. For many, it was their first concert in their lives. Up to that time we had never had so many colored listeners as on Cuba. Even that was revolutionary. The Cubans have little of an educated audience nowadays. That is why they are bringing up the new ones and with great enthusiasm they take care of the artistic instructors in the field of music, theatre and dance. This two-year-long-course college has about 4000 students.

The long tour through the American continent was not only a trip to the exotic countries for the nine Czech artists. It was a constant fight with the tropical dampness, the unbearable heat, thirst, unusual food, the bureaucratic apparatus of the consulates refusing to give the entry visa, or even with the troublesome mosquitoes being a nuisance for the sweating artists on the stage. The nonetists’ main target was a successful representation of the Czech art. At the presence of the Berlin Octet touring the same cities as we were, except for Cuba, the critics had a chance to compare. It was not easy, after a sleepless sixteen-hour long journey on a train, and in a car with the air conditioning out of order, to sit at the music stands and play well. (Václav Zilka, Svet v obrazech, Praha, 12 August 1961)

The Nonet in Spain

At the very beginning the Czech Nonet performed in the Federal Republic of Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy, from Sicily they headed for Barcelona via Nice. One cannot help constant comparing. Is the Italian audience different from the Spanish one? We soon found out they differ a great deal. In Palermo the women smoked at the concerts, they talked and only some of them applauded. The greater surprise was their coming to our dressing room during the interval and speaking in superlatives about our concert. We asked shyly, why they had applauded so little. They shrugged their shoulders: Why should one make the effort? The thing is we enjoyed it, isn’t it? Though we had one pleasant experience in Italy: the further from the stage and the closer to the galleries, the more concentrated and warm-hearted the audience. The chamber music concert attendance in Italy is not as high as in the FRG, Austria or the Netherlands.

And Spain? In the past years a whole range of our artists went on tour there and the organizers are asking for them again and again. The Spanish do not have such a long music tradition as the Italians do, at least the concert and opera tradition. However, the theatres are sold-out at our concerts; the audience is very attentive, sophisticated, grateful and educated.

Our Spanish agent is quite different from those with which the Nonet has co-operated until now. In other countries everything is always organized and agreed on a long time in advance, we know the train departures and the hotels beforehand; we do not travel uselessly from one place to another. In Spain we have to look after ourselves a lot, sometimes we do not know the concert plan even for the following couple of days. We often have to call or travel to Madrid in person to see the agent, not even an unsigned contract is an exception. We spend the most time on the train – even 36 hours of journey without a sleeping berth and then straight to a concert. A concert tour is neither a trip, nor a holiday, but very hard work. The tiredness is only outweighed by the artistic performance, success with the audience and the praise of the critique: by the way, in Oviedo, the critics do not sign their articles with a name, a cipher or initials, their pseudonym is hidden by one of the great opera characters, e.g. Florestan, Fidelio and Tamino. In our country such fashion would be rather unusual (Dalibor), although many times appropriate: e.g. Mumbler, not speaking about one of the characters from Smetana’s Bartered Bride (Kecal, the matchmaker, in Czech the natterer).

None of us spoke Spanish and the biggest troubles we had were in restaurants. In cases where we had stuck to the two favorite recipes, beefsteak and schnitzel (bifstec y escalope), we made no mistake. But one cannot live on a beefsteak and schnitzel and so from time to time we tried to improvise. The exotic sounding tortilla showed to be a common pancake, and even worse it was with a specialty called calamared en su tinta. By the name as well as the taste it reminded us of the inkpots and their own ink (kalamár being an inkpot in Czech) but it was a strange entanglement of tails in a fine liquid: when we saw a flat cuttlefish on the market later on, and realized from which animal this meal had originated, we did not want to try again. Also our first violinist was enjoying his noodle soups for a long time, but one day he put his glasses on and found out the pasta had some tiny little black eyes: those were long thin little snakes. Since then our first violinist has always had his lunch with his glasses on. We enjoyed Pamplona, the birthplace of the violinist and composer Pablo Sarasate. There is a splendid Gothic cathedral but the front Neo-Classicist facade, having been built in the place of the original burnt down one, does not correspond with the amazing interior. In mute admiration one walks through the main nave and looks at the spectacular, great art of the Gothic stonemasons: we have been missing the clear and simple style for long.

The province of Navarra, dominated by the fortress of Pamplona with triple ramparts, well-preserved until today, belongs to the Basque country. Their villages are mini-settlements, no bigger than ten or twenty houses. The fertile valley just before Pamplona, on the way from San Sebastian, is dotted with such ones.

What else? In fashion, as one would say, the black color is the leading one. Even with the men. Most women wear a decent light blue-green make-up, though it does not look very eccentric. From the cars, Renault Dauphine and Seat – the Spanish license of Fiat are most frequent. A Spanish street is trying hard to catch up with Europe – except for the striptease. It does not exist in Spain at all – not even in a night club, cinema, or magazines. A Spanish lady who sits down on a bench in a park, makes up for the short skirt length by covering with a folded coat. We have hardly met such an obsessed sense of morality in the whole world! In Pamplona, we found out there are very strict rules even for the dancing youth: at the dance there must be a certain distance between the couple, and that is why especially the slow-Argentinean-tango lovers are rather disappointed. On the other hand, our twist worshippers would come into their own here. The cinema offers mostly American productions and the TV, spread into every single café or inn, has fewer admirers by far than in our country. A sad view are the numerous blind, selling lottery tickets and calling their ’Para oíí, para oíí.’ out. Catching their breath, they try to catch other people’s attention by knocking on the paving with their long white sticks. Nobody but the blind can sell the national lottery tickets. It is their privilege but those who are obliged to apply are far too many.

I’d rather go back to our Nonet. The first Spanish tour was a successful ending of the last season before entering the jubilee one – the fortieth. The oldest Czech chamber ensemble is going to be forty! With man, it is no age, but with a body of nine artists who have gone through days of flourishment as well as crises, moments joyful and harsh too, it is an admirable age. (Václav Zilka, Lidová demokracie, Praha, 7 June 1963)

A yellowed photograph in Bilbao

A theatre backstage in a large North-Spanish port of Bilbao. Not a very large room, but at the same time one of the most interesting museums of the world concert art we have ever seen. Hundreds of photos of violinists, pianists, cellists, singers, guitarists as well as chamber ensembles and conductors who have given 1296 concerts in the 67-year long history of the “Sociedad Filarmonica de Bilbao”, a music society of this town. People both in the auditorium and in the backstage are in a festive mood. The CZECH NONET, a unique ensemble from a faraway country, has arrived. Squeezed in a rather small room, the nonetists are preparing their instruments, warming up, looking at the photographs on the walls. Thousands of things are going through their minds. The memories of a just finished tour to Italy. The first concerts in Spain – in San Sebastian and in Pamplona.

Suddenly, our eyes rest on one of the yellowed photographs. It has got one of the lowest serial numbers of this ’museum’. The faces ring a bell with us. We are going closer, trying to read the writing… Yes, no doubt! These are the famous Czech Quartet members! Karel Hoffmann, Josef Suk, Jirí Herold and still Hanus Wihan. That quartet who founded the fame of the Czech modern concert art in the world. And they –forty years ago – set the example and gave rise to the idea of founding a similar ensemble, of 4 string and 5 wind instruments – the Czech Nonet.

The year of dedication on the yellowed photograph shows April 1914. The immediate students and followers of the Czech Quartet are tuning their instruments nearly fifty years later in order to vindicate the fame of their up-to-this-day respectfully remembered teachers. Will they manage? Will they vindicate the good tradition of the other Czech artists having given concerts here decades before them, or a short time ago, such as the commencing conductor of PSMU Pavel Soupal, the Sevcík-Lhotsky Quartet, the Novák Quartet, the Capital City of Prague Quartet FOK, the Prague Trio etc?

The welcoming applause is polite, but cold. The first tones of the immortal Beethoven Septuor are being played. We can feel the expectations and critical attention right down to the fingertips touching the instruments. We can feel the rising tension, we can hear a more and more excited reaction of the audience in the short intervals between the movements. The last phrase, the final E flat major chord. A second, the never-ending second of the well-known tension, full of expectations for the reaction. And straight afterwards the liberating relief, as the audience roar with applause. Again and again we have to take a bow.

With even more interest, after the interval, we are presenting two compositions by contemporary Czech authors – Alois Hába and Jan Novák who represent the creative Czechoslovakia of present years. There is a never-ending applause after the second half, too. We are obliged to take many encores. We take the success somehow for granted now. However, we are a little surprised when the old, generous president of the Music Society congratulates us and is surprised to say, for a long time he has not experienced such a great success with the local cold and conservative audience. And we get an invitation for the next concert next season.

The air smells of spring. We can hear a boat hoot from a nearby port. Next difficulties: tiring tours are before us and struggles with suspicion and conservatism. The memory of the yellowed photograph in Bilbao is going to support us in every hard moment. (Rudolf Lojda, Rudé právo, Praha, 11 June 1963)

This is what the press wrote about the Spanish tour:

The Czech Nonet succeeds in Italy and Spain

After a successful six-week tour to Italy and Spain, the Czech Nonet, our oldest chamber ensemble who is going to celebrate its 40th anniversary this year, returned to Prague. The ensemble has given concerts for the seventh time in Italy since the end of WW2, whereas their tour to Spain was the first journey to this country. That the outstanding success reached both the audience and the critics in both countries is even more important as the ensemble had presented most of all contemporary Czech chamber music. The audience could meet, apart from the classic chamber works, the compositions by Alois Hába, Jan Novák, Isa Krejcí, Jirí Pauer and Bohuslav Martinu. (Czechoslovak Press Agency) (Mladá fronta, Praha, 11 April 1963)

In 1963, the ensemble underwent a fundamental personnel change as the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra director Jirí Pauer advertised the posts of all members of the Czech Nonet. Three months before this competition the Czech Nonet went on a tour to Spain. The following words are a direct quotation of a former Nonetist, the flutist Václav Zilka, who belongs to those members who had to leave the ensemble that year. _’Three months before the competition which date we already had known, we left for a Spanish tour. There we experienced a great disillusion and surprise. From one of our colleagues who was an active member of the Czech Communist Party, we learnt who was going to succeed in the competition after the tour and who was not. It was clear the competition was just a farce. That is why after the arrival four members of the Czech Nonet were discharged.’_ Among these four players, apart from Václav Zilka, there were also Václav Vodicka, Oldrich Uher and Vilém Kostecka. The first violinist Emil Leichner left with them. Not in this undignified way. Emil Leichner, having played decades in the Czech Nonet, retired just before the fortieth anniversary celebration.

New musicians came to these posts. We have to point out, more than a half of this chamber ensemble were new members. These were Bohdan Warchal, Lubomír Maly, Frantisek Hertl, Jirí Válek, and Karel Lang.