Tuesday, December 27, 2011


A memorable debut for jazz at the National Theater.

Mary Stallings hit all the right notes in her Dec. 23 Prague debut at the National Theater. The American jazz virtuoso vocalist sang pitch-perfect classics from Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and others, including in her program Christmas favorites, tributes to the rich Czech musical heritage and to the great Czech leader Václav Havel.

The evening was memorable both for Stallings’ sublime voice and the historical significance of the event. Accompanied by her American pianist David Udolf and local musicians Vincez Kummer (on bass) and Marian Ševčík (on drums), Stallings infused blues, soul and gospel into her renditions of jazz standards and holiday favorites like “I’ll be Home for Christmas” and “White Christmas.” On a bittersweet day, she struck the right notes of love, appreciation, respect, celebration and solidarity.

The first-ever jazz show at the National Theater was billed as a Christmas Concert, and it was that and much more. The night was also a commemoration and celebration of the life of Václav Havel on the day of his funeral at nearby Prague Castle. As Bill and Hillary Clinton paid their respects to President Havel during the day, accompanied by current U.S. Ambassador Norman Eisen, Stallings did the same at night. Following a moment of silence, she told the near-capacity audience that the concert would commemorate President Havel, the great world citizen and statesman who fought for human freedom and dignity.

Wearing a floor-length emerald green dress and looking not at all her 72 years of age, the statuesque Stallings warmed the crowd with “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” followed by Cole Porter’s “A Foggy Day (in London Town).” She then introduced herself, calling the concert a “heartfelt evening to commemorate the memory of Václav Havel and the legacy he left with us of freedom, which we all stand for.” By the time she finished her next song, a soulful version of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” that she dedicated to Havel, there was not a dry eye in the house.

That heart-melting tribute was followed by upbeat love songs and swing standards, reminding us that life is for the living. Called back onto the stage by two standing ovations, Stallings concluded with an encore of Ellington’s “Love You Madly.” The diversity of the musical program was testament to the breadth and universality of jazz, which the artist calls the music of brotherhood.

The remainder of the program was varied and thoughtful, with songs by Ellington, Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Billie Holiday, George and Ira Gershwin, Billy Strayhorn, Bing Crosby and more. When Gershwin’s “Summertime” lyrics “You’re gonna spread your wings and take to the sky” were sung, it was hard not to think of Havel. There was a tenderness and sophistication to the program attributable to the quality of the occasion, the performer and Stalling’s feeling, shared with this writer in an interview following the afternoon sound check, that Europeans have a unique appreciation for jazz.

Commenting on what she learned from performing with jazz legends like Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Earl Hines, Stallings said that only now does she realize what a privilege and gift it was to be schooled by such great musical innovators. She said that “singing is nothing but a conversation through song,” adding that she hopes “my music will inspire others to feel.”

Stallings paid tribute to Prague’s and jazz’s rich musical heritage, praising the beauty of the Golden City. Her only off-note was her understandable difficulty in pronouncing the names of her bassist and drummer. Otherwise, she proved to be a living legacy to jazz, which she calls “America’s gift to the world.”

On this special and poignant evening, the singer delivered a wonderful gift, making those present feel so much through her artistry. We can only hope that a new holiday tradition has begun in Prague: Jazz at the National Theater with greats like Mary Stallings.

Thanks to guest reviewer Bill Cohn for this report.

Monday, December 12, 2011


Klára Jelínková gets in the spirit of The Nutcracker.

The Christmas holidays are not the best time of year to hear serious music in Prague. But they are a wonderful time to bask in the sounds of the season, especially for families. The city’s opera houses, orchestras and chamber ensembles offer a dazzling variety of holiday concerts, many programmed with children in mind. Here’s a guide to the best, starting with relatively serious fare for adults.

The Czech Philharmonic is offering two special holiday concerts with first-rate soloists. Local favorite Petr Altrichter will be at the podium for the Christmas concerts (Dec. 21 & 22), which open with Australian pianist Piers Lane soloing on Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto, make a nod to the Bohuslav Martinů Days festival with the composer’s 1950 Intermezzo and conclude with a Nutcracker suite. On New Year’s Eve afternoon, Latvian violinist Baiba Skride joins the orchestra for a pair of de Sarasate pieces, complementing a light program of Dvořák and Johann Strauss that will send everyone out for the evening humming the Blue Danube Waltz.

The Prague Philharmonia is moving to Žofín for its Christmas concert, a program of easy-on-the-ears opera arias and Christmas carols featuring two talented local singers, soprano Tereza Mátlová and tenor Aleš Briscein (Dec. 21). After warming up with some ambitious Czech appetizers, the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra will serve up a main course of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Cantata No. 1 for the First Holiday of Christmas, with conductor Marko Ivanović leading a strong quartet of local vocalists and the Prague Philharmonic Choir (Dec. 19). And the Czech National Symphony Orchestra has assembled a very good vocal quartet from the National Theater and State Opera rosters along with a mixed choir for a program of Pachelbel, J.S. Bach and J.J. Ryba’s Czech Christmas Mass (Dec. 20).

The Prague Symphony Orchestra is taking Christmas off, giving the holiday over to two performances of traditional Czech holiday music at Sts. Simon and Jude: A chamber group from the orchestra and the Kühn Mixed Choir will stage Ryba’s Czech Christmas Mass, and later in the day Jaroslav Krček’s impeccable Musica Bohemica ensemble will offer costumed versions of seasonal favorites (Dec. 25). The orchestra returns on New Year’s Day with an energizing program of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, conducted by Charles Olivieri-Munroe.

The Prague Symphony Orchestra is also sponsoring the best recital of the holiday season. Star mezzo Dagmar Pecková is the orchestra’s artist-in-residence this year, and she will be singing a program of Haydn and Purcell at Sts. Simon and Jude, accompanied by Vojtěch Spurnýʼs fine chamber group, Ensemble 18+ (Dec. 20).

Early music fans will find some very good gifts under the tree this year. Medieval sacred music specialists Schola Gregoriana Pragensis are singing an Advent program in an ideal setting, the 12th-century Basilica of St. George at Prague Castle (Dec. 21). Collegium Marianum has put together a program of 17th- and 18th-century Czech Christmas music featuring two outstanding local singers, Hana Blažíková and Barbora Sojková, which the ensemble will perform at its Baroque Library Hall in Old Town (Dec. 28 & 29). And Pragueʼs best Baroque ensemble, Collegium 1704, is wrapping up the year in spectacular fashion with a double bill of J.S. Bachʼs Magnificat and Zelenkaʼs Te Deum at Sts. Simon and Jude Church (Dec. 31).

The State Opera also offers an enjoyable way to spend New Year’s Eve with its traditional production of Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus (Dec. 31).

For a family outing, it’s hard to top the National Theater’s The Nutcracker – A Christmas Carol, a lively and colorful amalgam of Tchaikovskyʼs timeless ballet and the Dickens Christmas classic. With the production running through Jan. 7 this year, there are plenty of opportunities to see it, including two performances on Christmas day.

The National Theater is also offering multiple performances of Jakub Jan Ryba’s Czech Christmas Mass, arguably the most popular piece of music in the Czech lands during the holiday season. Whether this cultural icon translates beyond that is a matter of taste, but the performances by the Children’s Opera Prague at the Estates Theater will have some charm for every age group (Dec. 21 & 22).

The kids should also enjoy the Christmas day concert at the State Opera, a production of Czech holiday songs and traditional Christmas carols by a brass quintet and the Kühn Childrenʼs Choir.

And looking ahead, the Talich Chamber Orchestra is offering a great return to real music in the new year, backing two very good singers, Chinese soprano Lily Zhang and American baritone Richard Zeller, in a program of opera arias at Sts. Simon and Jude Church (Jan. 2).

Until then, give yourself over to the season and enjoy its musical gifts.

Mr. Culture will be taking a holiday break in the States, so this will be the last concert posting of 2011. The calendar will be kept fresh every week, so you can check for concert listings as usual. Thanks for your support and see you back here in the new year.

Photo: P. Hejný

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


December 6

The program for last night’s Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra concert promised Maxim Shostakovich at the podium, conducting three of his father’s works. Unfortunately, illness prevented Maxim from making the trip to Prague. But Ukrainian conductor Yuri Yanko graciously agreed to take his place, with satisfying results.

Yanko: A salutary stand-in.
Maxim has been a regular visitor to Prague over the past 20 years, recording a complete set of his father’s 15 symphonies with the Prague Symphony Orchestra. “This orchestra understands Shostakovich very well, and what he’s saying in his music,” he told this writer in a 2005 interview. “It’s always a happy moment for me to be conducting in Prague.” Maxim cut a commanding figure at the podium, unleashing fiery versions of the symphonies that sounded like thunderheads rolling into Smetana Hall at Obecní dům.

Yanko showed there’s another way to approach Shostakovich, particularly with last night’s program. The first half featured two uncharacteristically light works, the introduction to the ballet The Golden Age and his Piano Concerto No. 2. They served as a bright counterpoint to the second half of the program, the hour-long and decidedly less cheerful Symphony No. 8.

The dissonance between the horns and woodwinds early in the Golden Age introduction quickly identifies it as a Shostakovich piece, though in every other respect it’s a festive and colorful work, with snatches of melodies that promise some lively dancing. Shostakovich wrote it after a visit to Weimar Germany, and the score reflects the vibrant jazz and cabaret music of the period. Yanko set a brisk tempo and kept the woodwinds lucent and sharp above the droning strings, opening the evening like a bottle of champagne.

A Romantic approach.
The conductor’s version of the Piano Concerto No. 2 was the smoothest Shostakovich this critic has ever heard, without a single harsh note or rough edge. The liquid quality of the sound owed a lot to soloist Hyejin Kim, a young Korean who studied in Berlin and has made an impressive showing in international competitions. Versed in a repertoire that leans more toward Romantics like Beethoven and Schumann, she has a light, fluid touch that worked best in the andante, with its slower pace and expressive themes. Yanko toned down the orchestra to let Kim shine, so much so that at times she seemed to be leading the piece. But her performance garnered generous applause, both from the audience and orchestra musicians.

The Symphony No. 8 was more typical of Shostakovich, with a big percussion section put to full use and long passages of tortured strings that have been interpreted as the artist being crushed by the oppressive Soviet system. Yanko showed that he could build movements to the intensity that characterizes most interpretations of Shostakovich, developing powerful depth and dynamics. Otherwise he took a deliberate approach, setting a relatively calm, steady tempo and emphasizing the solo passages, layering them into the larger orchestral sound with fine precision. Especially notable was the clarity and transparency he got from such a large ensemble. And it’s hard to recall any Shostakovich work drawing to such a subdued, whispered finish.

Yanko shares one characteristic with Maxim Shostakovich: As he came out to sustained applause for his final bow of the evening, Yanko held up the score, a gesture that Maxim often makes after a performance of his father’s music. It’s a generous acknowledgment of the composer’s work and significance – and a reminder that when you’re playing Shostakovich, no matter who is at the podium, the real star of the show is Shostakovich.