Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Old Town Square
July 11 & 12

Linka has kept cool in the face of daunting challenges.

Franz Kafka is alive and well in the Czech Republic. Or at least, the absurdist world that he captured in novels and short stories is. For proof, look no further than Bohemia Jazz Fest, which opens in Prague tonight and plays in eight cities throughout the country, closing in Prachatice on July 22.

The festival is the creation of Rudy Linka, a Czech expat who left the country in 1980 and went on to a great career as a jazz guitarist in the United States. Prompted by a desire to bring the best of the West back to his homeland, Linka launched the festival in 2005 on a unique premise: World-class music presented in the visual splendor of historic town squares, all for free. Featuring stellar performers such as John Scofield, Stanley Clarke, Bill Frisell, Ralph Towner, Roy Haynes and McCoy Tyner, it turned out to be an enormous success, attracting more than 70,000 visitors every summer and garnering positive reviews in publications ranging from Michelin travel guides to Downbeat magazine.

Any country in Europe would give its figurative eyeteeth to have an event like that. So when Linka came in March to finalize details for this year’s festival, he was surprised to learn that the Prague stage had been moved from Old Town Square to Ovocný trh (fruit market), the much smaller square behind the Estates Theater. Despite the fact that BJF jams Old Town Square to capacity every year, it took a month of meetings to get it moved back.

I personally talked to about 20 people,” Linka recalls. “Then we had all our contacts talk to their contacts.” One meeting was particularly memorable. “I made a presentation showing all the places we’ve been written up, and talked about how tradition is so easily destroyed in this country, and we’ve started a new one, and why would we destroy it? The guy said, ʻI agree. But what’s wrong with the fruit market?’”

That turned out to be only the first of many stumbling blocks put in his way. After Culture Minister Jiří Besser was forced to resign last August, bureaucrats took advantage of the leaderless interim to remove BJF from the top-five list of cultural events in the Czech Republic, effectively canceling its funding and forcing Linka to reapply, like any first-year novice. After many meetings, the festival’s standing was eventually restored, along with its funding – at one-quarter the previous level.

Then there is the legal case that BJF has been embroiled in since last summer, when a former colleague, Jan Nedved, decided to start his own jazz festival by stealing Linka’s concept, name, website design and, most importantly, biggest sponsor – ČEZ. The South Bohemia Jazzfest could never match the original in talent, since many of the players come as a personal favor to Linka. But even after BFJ secured an injunction against the imposter, which Nedved has ignored, ČEZ switched its financial support (said to be in the neighborhood of 5 million Kč) to him. “We can’t support two jazz festivals,” a company spokesperson told Linka.

The latest, though surely not the final, insult came as the stage was being assembled on Old Town Square this year. It’s all backwards. Instead of facing out from the Týn Church side, it’s been moved across the square and hemmed in by rows of sausage stands, severely reducing the space where people can stand to watch the bands. Linka saw that plan some weeks ago, explained that it wouldn’t work, and was assured that it would be changed back to its original configuration.

So he deserves a ton of credit for not throwing a fit when he walked onto Old Town Square on Wednesday morning this week. Instead, he looked around calmly and wondered, “Who is this benefiting?” It’s tempting to think that some money changed hands and vendors or restaurant owners will profit from the new arrangement. More likely the bureaucracy, stymied in the short term, is sending Linka a long-term message: You really belong on Ovocný trh.

Whatever the case, don’t let the snafu stop you from taking in the festival, which once again is offering major stars: Dave Holland in Plzeň, Dee Dee Bridgewater in Olomouc, Trilok Gurtu in Brno, Joe Lovano in České Budějovice. And headlining the first night in Prague is probably the best jazz band touring anywhere in the world this summer: Guitar wizard Mike Stern, bass superstar Richard Bona, drummer Dave Weckl and sax player Bob Franceschini.

Rest assured that on nearby Franze Kafky square, a certain author will be present in spirit, taking in the music and appreciating the absurdity of it all.

For a complete Bohemia Jazz Fest schedule:

Monday, July 9, 2012


National Theater
July 10

Red Cliff updates traditional Chinese opera.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Prague is being invaded by a cultural Red Army this week – but not by much. The Beijing Opera rolled into town over the weekend with a troupe of 160 performers and support staff, three truckloads of elaborate sets and costumes, and a production billed as a “blockbuster.”

That description is not much of an exaggeration, either. Created with an eye toward capturing younger domestic viewers and building an international audience, Red Cliff premiered in Beijing in 2008 and went on for a run of 58 performances, attracting more than 100,000 people. Though it draws on the conventions of the world-famous Peking Opera, Red Cliff was mounted as a co-production with Chinaʼs National Center for the Performing Arts, which has been charged with putting a fresh face on traditional Chinese culture.

So the production has distinctly modern touches. Peking Opera sets are usually no more than a table and chairs; this one offers extravagant multi-tiered facades, spectacular lighting effects and plenty of dry ice smoke. The costumes make Lady Gaga look banal. And some of Chinaʼs biggest talents were recruited for the production, including director Zhang Jigang, who choreographed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The director paid great attention to keeping basic Peking Opera elements while adding modern technologies, especially in the lighting,” says Guan Bo, the National Center producer who is traveling with the production. “People familiar with the Peking Opera will recognize certain reference points, but even those have been updated and enriched.”

A visual extravaganza.
The story concerns a well-known battle from the Three Kingdoms period in China (around 200 AD), when the founders of the Wu and Shu kingdoms combined forces to defeat the warlord Cao Cao and drive him back to the north. Foreigners may have problems keeping up with the intricacies of the plot, which starts with Cao Caoʼs declaration of war and climaxes with two big battle scenes. But many of the visual elements need no translation: 10,000 arrows flying through the air, roaring flames on a cliff, battleships clashing on the Yangtze River.

The music is performed by an 18-piece orchestra playing mostly traditional Chinese instruments. The singers do not fall into standard Western vocal categories – soprano, tenor, etc. – relying instead on acting to develop characterization. And for this performance, there will be Czech surtitles (though none, alas, in English).

Trimmed in length and scaled down to fit on European stages, Red Cliff represents the National Centerʼs inaugural effort to export Chinese culture, and was chosen with modern branding in mind. “We have many good productions that could go abroad,” Bo says. “We felt this was the most representative of China, and exemplifies what the National Center stands for.”

Asked what he hopes local audiences will get from the performance, Bo says, “The same thing people go to Western operas for – an interesting story, great music, singing and acting. Of course, we also hope this will be an engine to encourage people to learn more about traditional Chinese culture.”

Prague is the last stop for Red Cliff, which also played in Vienna and Budapest the past two weeks. If audience reaction is any measure, the tour has been a success.

The Burgtheater in Vienna has no air-conditioning, so the audiences sat through a three-hour performance in nearly 40 degree temperatures,” Bo says. “Still, we sold out the opening performance and had 80-90 percent ticket sales the other nights. So I would say we had a warm welcome there. Really warm.”

Photos courtesy of the National Theater