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A Spring Concert

The well-known cimbál band Hradišťan performed last Tuesday (14 March) in my neighborhood. Since it was close, I arrived late. The Musilka hall at "Omega" cultural center is not far from my new apartment, which gave me the idea that I would not have to hurry. This resulted in leaving the house at 19.30 and not arriving until after the concert began. I should have hurried. I did, however, catch most of the music. Hradišťan’s core instrumentation is relatively normal, that of a run-of-the-mill cimbalom band: primáš (first violin, Jiří Pavlica) and second violin (Michal Krystýnek), kontráš (viola, two players rotate in this position), kontrabas (bass, Dalibor Lesa), cimbál (Milan Malina), a reed and flute player (clarinet and whistles, David Burda), and a female singer (Alice Holubová). All the members double on vocals, and most of them sang as the lead at least once (except perhaps the bassist and violist).

The building was not another one of those communist cultural centers, which surprised me since its designation as a kulturní středisko (cultural center) has a socialist ring to it! Communist "cultural houses" pollute so many Czech towns and most were built in an architerually unfortunate 1960s style. The Omega's architecture--spare functionalist with perhaps some slight art deco influence--suggested that it was built in the 1920s or 30s. The hall was boxy, but did seem to have better sound than others I’ve been in, which I attributed arbitrarily to the earlier architectural style (at least there was no music from a nonstop Herna bar booming up through the floor as there was at a Jožka Černý concert back in December). The most obviously outdated elements were the ticket stubs: they were so old that the price was listed in "Kčs"--Czechoslovak crowns, which haven’t existed since 1993. I suspect that, in 1993, 190 crowns would have been an expensive concert; it seems a good price to me (nowadays that’s under $8).

I squeezed past the people sitting next to the door to find an empty seat in the last row. As I was sitting down Pavlica was just finishing a few remarks and I heard him wish everyone a "friendly evening." The concert, he remarked, was to celebrate spring. This ended up slightly ironically since a few inches of snow had fallen over the weekend and there were still flakes in the air that evening. This was taken in good spirits, however, and the band played many songs from their album O slunovratu (Of the solstice) to show that we had not yet given up on summer’s return even if it was going slowly.

Hradišťan is certainly one of the most interesting and long-standing groups on the Moravian music scene. Since their founding as a folklore troup in the group has seen many changes. Most significant was probably the entrance of violinist Jiří Pavlica in 1975; he became the artistic director in 1978 and continues to guide the group. In addition to playing first violin he has involved the group in an extensive series of collaborations with Czech musicians and others from around the world, many of which were broadcast on Czech Television as the series Sešli se (“They came together”). He has also composed much of the groups recent repertory. Some of my favorites were "Modlitba za vodu" ("Prayer for Water,” on a text by Jan Skácel) and "Rozhovor a láska" ("Conversation and Love," also on a Skácel text but featuring a very summery instrumental interlude reminiscent of the Shire music from the recent Lord of the Rings score).

Modlitba za vodu by Jan Skácel
Ubývá míst kam chodívala pro vodu
má starodávná milá
kde laně tišily žízeň kde žila rosnička
a poutníci skláněli se nad hladinou
aby se napili z dlaní
Voda si na to vzpomíná
voda je krásná,voda má
voda má rozpuštěné vlasy
chraňte tu vodu
nedejte aby osleplo prastaré zrcadlo hvězd

Playing-wise the group seems almost too polished. This is not bad, but they often sound like a band playing in the studio rather than interacting with an audience. Some of this might be due to the sound engineer—everything was very dry and crisp through the speakers and the hall did not become boomy. The cimbál was miked particularly nicely, and the vocals were much clearer than is sometimes the case for similar groups. However, there is more to this polished sound than sound engineering: Hradišťan is very well-rehearsed and there is a tight sense of ensemble. Every beginning and ending was together, especially in tricky arrangements and songs with long or comlex verses. Such a crisp sense of ensemble only comes from extensive rehearsal and highly-trained musicians. (Pavlica, at least, studied violin performance at the Brno Conservatory and later composition at the Janáček Academy in Brno; earlier he also studied "cultural theory" at Palacký University in Olomouc.) It sounds like a larger ensemble than it is because of the blend. Also the singers and violinists can deftly change timbre to sound more ‘folky’ or more orchestral.

The hall was almost full, and it was obvious that Hradišťan is popular with the audience in Brno; I suspect most of their concerts are full. Why do people go to the concerts? Is it an identity thing? Is there a felt connection between Hradišťan’s "new" elements and older "Czech" folk music? They do not seem to advertise as a "folklore" group, yet it is that strand of their style which legitimizes their "Czech" status as. "Folklore" seems to be a category that is conceived most of the time as static, yet Hradišťan’s music is vibrant and combines many non-folkloric elements. In fact, as commentator Ondřej Bezr noted after an interview with Pavlica, "it is fascinating to realize that Hradišťan – similar to some Czech folk musicians of the last twenty years – has convinced the ‘alternative’ public and even young listeners, that ‘folklore’ is not a swear word" (in Pětadvacet [Rozhovory s českými muzikanty] [Brno: Petrov, 2004], p. 37). Yet with all the "new" elements they incorporate--many of the songs are their own and utilize Czech folk instruments primarily for unique sounds--I can’t help but asking if they are really departing from Czech folklore or merely from a stream of music that draws Czech instruments and features songs with Czech-language texts? They are often dubbed "crossover" (in English, crossover) artists here, but would they be perceived that way outside the country? What are they crossing over? How is that concept understood here? Do musicians themselves use it to describe their music or does it have a disparaging ring? In the end, it is Pavlica’s personality and compelling musicianship that has kept the group popular with audiences and musically vibrant. A listener might well be impressed first by the quality of their musicianship than their obviously deep knowledge of Czech folk music. This is, perhaps, why they have become and continue to be so popular.

(My photos did not turn out so I have chosen a few from their website. 1) Hradišťan in Mongolia during a 2002 tour; 2) The venue, cultural center "Omega" on Musilka street; 3) Modlitba za vodu by Václav Mach-Koláčný.)

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