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The Czech Republic farewell event, Tbilisi State Conservatoire

Monday, June 15
A concert and exhibition were held at the Tbilisi State Conservatoire on June 11 to mark the impending completion of the Czech Republic’s Presidency of the European Union. The concert consisted of one piece, Antonin Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A major of 1887 and an exhibition about the life and work of another Czech composer, Bohuslav Martinu, in the foyer. It wasn’t a very big offering, but big events need big organisation, and an EU Presidency only lasts six months.

Although the event was organised in association with the Czech Embassy and the exhibition had been curated by the Czech Museum of Music in Prague, the evening had the feel of a Georgian offering to the Czech Republic. After the welcoming speech of the Czech Ambassador, H.E. Ivan Jestrab, the concert was performed by the S. Tsintsadze Georgian National String Quartet and pianist Manana Doidjashvili, a Professor at the Conservatoire. Manana achieved her first international success in Prague at the Smetana International Piano Competition, and was clearly keen to give her personal tribute to Czech music by way of a thank you. It was actually an inspired idea, as the connections between Georgian and Czech culture run deeper than might be imagined.

Dvorak is probably the most famous Czech composer, and is often described as a romantic. He did live through a romantic period in his country’s history, a time of struggles for political independence and cultural evangelism, and the content of his music reflects this, but his actual style would not be out of place in Vivaldi’s time. The serious and conservative nature of Georgians, who have lived through and can relate to similar periods, is echoed in Dvorak. Similarly, both Georgians and Czechs give their national heroes, both cultural and otherwise, greater importance than is usual in Western countries. It was the athlete Emil Zatopek, not Dubcek, who was sent to speak to the invading Soviets in 1968 simply because he was a celebrity. Where Georgia has Pirosmani the Czech Republic has Dvorak, the expression of who the people should be more than what he says in his music.

The stage was arranged unusually for a piano quintet: the strings were in front, by the microphone, with the piano behind them. There is a reason for this. For most of the quintet you ask, “Where is the piano?” Dvorak’s attitude to instruments can be seen in his Legends from 1881, which exists in both two piano and full orchestral versions. The piano version sounds as if played by two rather intellectual pixies, whereas the orchestral version sounds like a group of heavily bearded old men reminiscing insightfully from their great experience. It is no surprise to learn that Dvorak was a professional violinist, not a pianist. The opening theme of the quintet is introduced by the cello, and continued by the violins. The piano part, though significant, is more like that of a jazz bassist: obbligato, providing a commentary on main action taking place elsewhere. The piano drives the dynamics in some parts, but it is not until the third movement of this standard sonata form piece that it leads the way, in a display of mutual chattering, only to then say that it doesn’t care anymore, and will do what it likes, in the final allegro. However, this is actually refreshing. By 1887 composers had got over the invention of the piano and the adoption of iron frames to withstand the likes of Liszt. The piece treats the piano as one instrument among five, and does it very well, as do the performers, who played with ease and confidence in an idiom they seemed to have an instinctive understanding of, in contrast to some who have made a nice career out of the myth of Czech romance, such as Sir Charles Mackerras.

The exhibition was displayed on pieces of coloured paper along one side wall of the foyer, not the best presentation. Surprisingly the text of it was all in English, though heavily illustrated. The relevance of Martinu is that this is the 50th anniversary of his death, and he is recognised internationally as one of the leading 20th century avant-garde composers, thus a nice counterpoint to Dvorak. But there are also similarities between them which made the one aspect of the event complement the other very well. Both went to Prague to study music young, and met the leading progressives of the day in an environment more open to new developments than some more uninterrupted European cultural scenes are. Not surprisingly, he then graduated to Paris where radical musicians ruled, as they tend to do in cycles in countries which have undergone revolutions, and like Dvorak arrived in the USA as a more important figure than he thought he was. His originality was expressed not merely in content but in developing new forms, such as TV and radio operas and surrealist operas, these nevertheless being rooted in a Czech folk tradition. This tends to be the contribution the cultural figures of smaller countries make to the wider world (witness Villa-Lobos) and again provided a model for what Georgians might do when taken sufficiently seriously to allow them to do so.

This event made you take notice of what Georgia is much as what the Czech Republic is, but perhaps that was the point. If subsequent EU Presidency countries can accurately express themselves through everyone else’s take on them, they might actually be contributing to European union.