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In Search of Two Artists

New York
Theresa L. Kaufmann Concert Hall, 92St Y
02/05/2009 -  
Czech Counterpoint: Words written, chosen and arranged by Milan Kundera
Leos Janácek: Mládí, Suite for Wind Sextet – Concertino for Piano, Two Violins, Viola, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon

Michael Beckerman (Introduction), Michael Stuhlbarg (Reader), Inon Barnatan (Piano), Members of the Cleveland Orchestra: Joshua Smith (Flute and piccolo), Frank Rosenwein (Oboe), Daniel McKelway (Clarinet), Richard King (Horn), John Clouser (Bassoon), James Ognibene (Bass clarinet), Jung-Min Amy Lee, Stephen Rose (Violins), Lynne Ramsey (Viola)

The idea was brilliant. Take Czech writer Milan Kundera, celebrating his 80th birthday this week, have him choose three selections from his novels, put on the first-chair players from the visiting Cleveland Orchestra, and they can play the music of Kundera’s countryman, Leoš Janácek, a composer about whom he has written extensively. Then see if and how words and music can illuminate each other.

Certain obvious combinations might have worked in this test. Every chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses is a musical form and his musical references are manifold. André Gide’s The Counterfeiters is in the form of a Bach fugue, Mann’s Faustus is an obvious description of the mania creating Schoenberg’s 12-tone process. Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe is almost certainly based on the Beethoven figure.

But Kundera the novelist and Janácek the composer are reverse sides of the same Czech coin. Kundera’s novels (to be brief) are whimsical, they explore human relationships with razor-sharp eyes, the pity and compassion are simultaneously admiration and even optimism.

Janácek’s imagination is singular, tough, it rambles on in starts and stops. Janácek can curve time in The Makropulos Affair or impersonate animals in The Cunning Little Vixen or the Concertino played last night. He even essays science-fiction in The Excursions of Mr. Brucek, set on the moon.

Together, they don’t dovetail.

Yet what a concert it could have been. Introducing the affair was one of the world’s great Janácek-ists, Michael Beckerman. In a beautiful resonant voice, he mentioned that Kundera frequently wrote music in his novels. And then he stopped. Five minutes he spoke, and to an audience who perhaps knew the writer or the composer, little was enlightening.

Mr. Beckerman could have mentioned how Kundera’s father was a student of Janácek, or that Kundera is fascinated by Janácek’s “Picasso-like old age.” (The program mentions the composer’s antediluvian prolificacy with no mention of Janácek’s love affair with a woman one-third his age, the obvious motivation.)

In passing, Mr. Beckerman mentioned Janácek’s approximation of human speech in music, but he never went further into this complex subject which actually does meld writing and music.

Having an expert like Michael Beckerman on stage at the Y should not have been wasted, but it was. So many questions about both questionable artists, and he might indeed have the answers.

Nor did the readings by Michael Stuhlbarg really add much. Three excerpts, the second of which concerned music and writing (Kundera’s take on Beethoven, Hemingway and Goethe was amusing enough) but otherwise was simply a decent translation of a brilliant writer.

As for the music, though, the Cleveland players gave forceful, accentuated and highly refreshing readings to Youth, written so youthfully when Janácek was in his 74th year. Joined by strings and pianist Inon Barnatan, they produced one of Janácek’s strangest works, the Concertino, where the instruments are like woodland animals, scurrying, running, fighting in the hot sunshine.

Some sitting near me who knew Kundera were rightly confused by the Concertino. It doesn’t speak for itself. It needs explanation, of the unique structure, of the pictures of nature, and Janácek’s own method of construction.

What I would have wished for at the end was not simply a reading, a closing of the book, and the audience departure. I wished Inon Barnatan, who played with such pointed enthusiasm in the Concertino, to return and play one of Janácek’s shorter piano works. Followed or perhaps preceded by one of Kundera’s splendid music writings.

In the meantime, the Y, with all good intentions, gave us two different artists, each going their own singular way on—to paraphrase a piano work by Leos Janácek—“two overgrown paths”.

Harry Rolnick



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