Filler Prague Spring

World-Class Musicians Come To Town For The Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival.
By Margaret Regan

TUCSON WILL BE celebrating a Prague Spring of sorts in the coming days. The original Prague Spring unfolded in 1968, when the Czechs' drift toward liberalization was crushed by an invasion of Soviet tanks. Happily, the Tucson version will be far more benign: an invasion of world-class Prague musicians coming to town to headline the third annual Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival.

Bracketed by a pair of Sundays, March 10 and March 17, the week-long festival includes four major concerts, two distinguished by unusual mixed-media performances of works by the Czech composer Leos Janácek; a mini concert followed by a movie (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, based on a Milan Kundera novel about the real Prague Spring); three dress rehearsals free and open to the public; and a gala Saturday night dinner and concert. The hard-working festival musicians providing all this musical activity number 16, but the stars are six Czechs: the members of the Prazak Quartet, violinist Josef Suk and harpist Katerina Englichová.

The Prazak Quartet (Prazak means "residents of Prague") is "one of the greatest quartets in the world," says Jean-Paul Bierny, president of the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music, the festival's sponsor. Suk, he says, "is a legendary violinist. It's some kind of miracle that we got him to come. Katerina Englichová is a magnificent harp player. She just won the 1995 Pro Musicis International Foundation Award. We've never had a harp player before for any of our concerts. We wanted some variety that we don't have in the regular series."

Bierny can be forgiven his boasting. The Arizona Friends of Chamber Music has been in the business of providing high-quality concerts for 48 years now, regularly bringing to the sleepy Old Pueblo musicians from this country and abroad. The enthusiastic Tucson audience is so passionate for chamber music, Bierny says, that subscriptions for the regular season have been a sell-out for years.

Two years ago, the Friends launched the annual festival, under the artistic direction of cellist Peter Rejto, a former UA music prof now at Oberlin College, who will also play in the concerts. This year the group introduced another, more informal series of Sunday afternoon concerts called Piano and Friends, not only to showcase piano music that Bierny says is disappearing, but to lure in the sought-after younger audience that finds its way so rarely to the classical music halls.

That elusive younger audience is one reason for the mixed-media slant of this year's festival, Bierny says. The first multi-arts piece, combining acting, slide visuals and music, will be performed at the opening concert at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 10, at Leo Rich Theatre. Following a program of pieces by Dvorák, Saint-Saëns and Janácek, a second Janácek piece, the 1923 String Quartet No. 1 "Kreutzersonate," will get the mixed-media treatment.

Image "It was inspired by a Tolstoy short story," Bierny explains. "A jealous husband stabs his pianist wife to death. She's been playing music with a man, playing Beethoven's Kreutzersonate, a sonata for piano and violin, and the husband suspects more is going on. An actor (Kirby Wahl) will read from the Tolstoy story, while slides of Prague are shown in the background. The actor will be interrupted occasionally by music." Eventually the musicians will take over and perform the entire piece.

Similarly, at the final Sunday afternoon concert at 3 p.m. on March 17, featuring works by Krommer, Tournier and Dvorák, another Janácek work will first be interpreted by actors. The composer's last piece, written in 1928 shortly before his death, String Quartet No. 2 "Intimate Letters," was inspired by his long love affair with a married woman, Bierny says. Janácek, who was also married, exchanged thousands of letters with the woman. At the concert, two local actors, Maedell Dixon and Jeff Cyronek, will read from the letters while slides of Prague flash behind them. Again, the musicians will interrupt the readings with bits of music and finally play the whole work.

UA drama professor Harold Dixon is putting together the slide shows; But the music is the main thing. Following the Czech theme, there's a Janácek in each of the four main concerts. Concert number two, at 8 p.m. Tuesday, also offers works by Mozart, Ravel and Smetena. Number three, at 8 p.m. Friday, also features Debussy, Dvorák and Brahms. Joining the Prague musicians will be 10 American musicians, who come from all around the country and count cello, violin, viola, clarinet, bassoon, flute, French horn, oboe and piano among their instruments.

All 16 musicians in the concerts have been rehearsing the designated works separately for a year and a half to two years, and will come together only on Friday for two days of intensive rehearsals. The concert fireworks, Bierny says, come from "mixing the musicians together."

"This festival is world-class," he says. "It's putting Tucson on the map."

The Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival concerts are at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 10; 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 12; 8 p.m. Friday, March 15; and 3 p.m. Sunday, March 17, at TCC Leo Rich Theatre, 260 S. Church Ave. UA musicologist John Finch will give a talk one-half hour before each concert. Tickets are $15 for adults, $5 for students with ID. A series ticket is $55. Free, open rehearsals will be from 9 a.m. to noon on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday, March 17.

The mini concert and film are at 7 p.m. Monday, March 11, at Leo Rich. Tickets are $5. The gala benefit dinner and recital begins with cocktails at 6 p.m., music at 7 p.m., and dinner at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 16, at the Arizona Inn, 2200 E. Elm St. Tickets are $80. For information and reservations call 298-5806. TW

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