After the Ples Was Over

28 February 2006
Another one from the archives, this time even farther back.

January and February are ples season. (The season is at its end, as Lent begins.) In many Czech cities and towns, a ples (basically a fancy dress ball) is a popular event in the post-Christmas and pre-Lent winter months. These seem to be fun ways to lighten up the dreary weather and to get warm in the frigid winter months.

On Saturday 21 January, I went to the Reprezentační ples ("Society Ball") sponsored by the Brno Philharmonic. This was the eleventh annual ball sponsored by the orchestra. This year was particularly significant as the orchestra is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of its founding. (A special jubilee concert on 1 January 2006 marked the official anniversary with the performance of Beethoven’s "Lenore" Overture and Ninth Symphony.)

The ball was held in the Besední dům, the orchestra’s official home and rehearsal space. The neo-renaissance building is on the north-west corner of the Koliště, Brno’s ring-road. It was designed by the "Viennese architect of Danish origin" Theophil Hansen and built between 1871 and 1873. The interior of the hall mimics Vienna's Musikverein, which was also designed by Hansen and built between 1867 and 1870. The comparative scale of the two buildings shows Brno's position as a provincial capital rather than a center of the empire: while the Besední dům's hall is fairly large, it could easily fit inside the Great Hall (Großer Saal) of the Musikverein. The rest of Brno’s ring road and the buildings lining it were are also closely linked to Viennese Ringstrasse concept. It is at times difficult to see this comparison directly since Brno is much smaller than Vienna, but there is definitely a likeness in concept and intent, though perhaps not in execution and scale.

Besední dům was intended as a cultural center for Brno. Though not originally as the seat of the philharmonic, it has always been a center for musical activities. During a student demonstration in 1905, the worker F. Pavlík was shot and killed in the square outside the building; this event caused nationalistic sentiment to rise among Brno’s Czech population and also was the impetus of Janáček’s piano sonata 5.XI.1905. Other buildings on the ring road include the Kounic Palace (currently the administration building of Masaryk University), the Janáček Theater (1964) and the Mahen Theater (both house companies of the National Theater in Brno), the functionalist Zeman coffee house, and the main train station.

Of my Prague friends, only Karla was able to make it. We were both curious to find out what was involved in the ples phenomena. Things started off with a program of light dance music by the philharmonic. The classics of this genre are by the Viennese Strausses; Johann was well-represented. There was also some Smetana (polkas) and the waltzes and polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Then the ples proper started. An MC announced that the first dance would be a waltz played by the philharmonic. The orchestra’s President and his wife were to lead the dancing, followed by four other select couples (I guess they knew who they were), and then the rest of us could join. This was followed by a polka by Smetana (played a bit too slowly) and then another waltz. It was impressive to see the formally dressed couples circling the floor of the hall. Since the space was designed as a social center, the current concert hall can easily convert into a ballroom (the chairs are removable). The surroundings—seven gilded chandeliers, an organ, the cream and gold nymphs and swans holding up the ceiling, and the full orchestra—gave the impression of glamour and nineteenth-century pomp. Some people may criticize Brno for a lack of luxury and grandeur, but they are obviously looking in the wrong places.

There was a short break after the orchestra finished before the jazz band and cimbalom band began. We ordered a glass of wine for our table (well, it was just the two of us), some peanuts, and then some pretzels. The music following the orchrestra had considerably fewer pretensions. The jazz band was live, but seemed to be modeled after the Glenn Miller concept and played mostly hits of the 1930s, 40s, and perhaps a few from the 50s. These were good for dancing. A second group played the best of the 1980s and 90s (yes, I’m being euphemistic here) with beautiful Casio synthesizers and a (real human!) singer. It seemed to us that their performance was a bit too much like a high school prom, so we did not dance much during this portion. It was certainly popular with many of the other attendees. There was also a tombola (raffle) between two of the later sets. Anyone who has seen Miloš Forman’s film, Hoří, má panenko (Firemen’s Ball, 1967) could appreciate this. A man near us won five (5) prizes!

There was also cimbalom music. This was the main reason I wanted to come to the ples in the first place. My teacher, Dalibor Štrunc, and his band performed downstairs in the bar for those who were tired of dancing and needed some refreshement. Karla and I were disappointed that there was not much dancing. It seemed that people came down to sing or have a glass of wine rather than to dance. At one point Petr Altrichter, the orchestra’s artistic director and conductor came out (he seemed to be on his way home). I was videotaping from the back, and of course he proceeded to stand directly in my line of sight. It was obvious that he greatly enjoyed the music and he even sang in the raucous, half-drunk style that is characteristic of some Moravian music. The cimbalom band was certainly a highlight of the evening.

The variety of balls that take place during the winter months is also surprising. This billboard from Velké Bílovice features advertisements for a firemen's ball, a children's ball, a ball of folk costumes, a wine ball, and more!

Její pastorkyňa

This is from my archives of things that were meant to be posted but never were. These have been accumulating for a few weeks now, so I will try to make the dates clear. You will also have to excuse any typos that occur if I am too lazy to do a detailed proofreading of old writing. (That's always one of my dreaded activities - reading my own writing again - and a blog is impermanent, right? Just those fleeting thoughts of a moment that can either be captured or die on the vine as the unwritten ideas are starved out by those that get enough attention.)

A new production of Leoš Janáček’s opera Její pastorkyňa (also called Jenůfa) premiered at the Janáčkovo divadlo in Brno last night (17 February 2006). It was great to be there—I felt quite privileged to see a first night in the city where Janáček lived and worked, in the theater that bears his name, just a few blocks from where the opera was first heard 102 years ago (21 January 1904).

The plot is straightforward, though it seems more violent than actually comes across in a synopsis. [Act I] Village beauty Jenůfa, step-daughter of a respected church matron, has become pregnant by Števa during spring festivities. They vow to marry, but the step-mother intercedes due to Števa’s drinking. Laca, Števa’s older half-brother and vying suitor, slashes Jenůfa’s cheek with a knife after telling her that Števa loves only her beauty. [Act II] It is winter. The step-mother has hidden Jenůfa in her cottage, telling the villagers that Jenůfa has gone to Vienna, and the baby was born. The step-mother tries to convince Števa to marry Jenůfa by showing him the baby, but he says it is impossible since he is already engaged to the Mayor’s daughter. Laca visits the cottage and the step-mother informs him that Jenůfa has returned but has a child. He is still in love but shocked by the news. Fearing that he will now refuse to marry Jenůfa, the step-mother tells him that she is only testing his love and that the baby actually died in birth. Laca leaves, saying that he will marry Jenůfa. The step-mother decides to drown the baby in the river since this is the only way she sees to make the wedding a reality. [Act III] In early spring the wedding preparations are underway. Laca and Jenůfa are congratulated by all, including Števa and his fiancée. The preparations are interrupted when workers chopping ice from the river come to the village to report that they have found the corpse of a baby frozen in the ice. Jenůfa recognizes the baby’s bonnet, and the villagers begin to accuse her of killing the baby. To save her step-daughter and absolve her guilt, the step-mother comes forward and admits to the murder. The step-mother is condemned to death and taken away. Jenůfa is afraid everyone will abandon her, but Laca says he still loves her and will not leave. Jenůfa rejoices at having found a true love that meets with God’s approval. [Curtain]

The staging in the new Brno production is traditional—no minimalist sets or conceptual costumes—and there are only a few rocks to be seen on the stage. (Apparently the recent production at the Met featured a large boulder on the stage, which was never fully explained except that stones are mentioned at a few points in the libretto.) There were also only a few kroj (folk costumes), which seems to reflect the current opinion that Janáček was not writing an opera about folkloristic village life but an opera about life, which happened to be set in a south Moravian village. This seems appropriate since there are only a few scenes that require kroj (the return of the villagers and soldiers from the army recruitment in Act I and the wedding preparations in Act III). This allowed more character development since individuals and personalities were not obscured by the costumes or made to seem “ethnic.”

The violence, as mentioned, is certainly more apparent in the synopsis than it seems during the opera. That is what happens, though not necessarily what the opera is about. The real "plot" is the growth of the characters: Laca and Jenůfa become pious and mature adults, and the Kostelnička learns she cannot manipulate fate, dictate the word of god, or trade in lives to avoid social censure. As John Tyrrell writes in TNGDMM2 Online, "It is wrong to emphasize the violent actions of the opera – Laca’s slashing of Jenůfa’s cheek, the Kostelnička’s murder of Jenůfa’s baby. . . . The shocking course of events is not there for gratuitous violence, but as a depiction of the hard lessons they have had to learn. The Kostelnička has the hardest lessons of all and it is fitting that Janáček’s title for the work should reflect that she is the main character."

Apart from the production, our seats were directly behind two interesting gentlemen. Whoever they were – perhaps one was Mr. Tyrrell – they certainly held strong opinions about the performance. One thought it was acceptable, but the second was very unforgiving. He shook his head half the time to let everyone know that he did not approve. He was particularly dismissive of Števa, Jenůfa, and the Kostelnička; Laca met his standards. (I thought they were all excellent, though particularly Laca and the Kostelnička; I over heard the critic saying, in Czech, that the Kostelnička was performing “without soul,” though most of the conversation was too quiet for me to hear.) Granted, I was a bit enamoured with the idea of seeing one of Janáček’s operas in Brno with great Czech singers, and this made me a bit less critical of the performance (plus, I am not much of an opera buff); regardless, I still do not think it acceptable to forgo applauding for certain singers at all because of mere artistic differences. This stems partly from my performance experiences: whether the performance has come off well or not is irrelevant, there has still been an enormous amount of effort, time, and soul poured into the preparation (at least for a premiere) and the performers deserve some credit. Given the large number of productions that the theater keeps in its repertory for long periods, I am sure that the musicians are overworked and perhaps not always able to give their best performances. So I clapped along with everyone, and even participated in the eventual standing ovation.

Future performances can be found by searching on the website of the National Theater in Brno's website,

New Milieu

So exciting I had to write it in French. I have moved to the new living space mentioned in the previous post. This was a move of convenience in more ways than one. Since my family was here, they were kind enough to lend a hand in moving a few of the large items (bookcase, etc.). Then there is the added solitude that I'm hoping is conducive to dissertation writing. Finally, there is a heating system that I'm really excited about. It's featured in the picture and has up to now been doing a great job. The new place is by no means luxurious - a bit small, faux linoleum "tiles" behind the kitchen counter that insist on detaching themselves for no good reason, and it's only a studio. But it has the important things (the above-mentioned heat as well as a functional hot-water heater). I'm relishing sitting next to the radiator while listening to Petr Jiříkovský's outstanding recording of Smetana's complete polkas, Polky/Polkas Complete (Studio Matouš, 1997, MK 0037-2 131). So far, so good.

I'm busy updating myself on the blogosphere happenings during my extended abscence. Back with you shortly.

Family Visits, Ib

22 February 2006
Glad everyone enjoyed last week's post. :)

I've been romping around Moravia since last Friday with my dad, brother, and dad's fiancee. This has proved an entertaining trip. First there was a day in Brno while everyone recuperated from jetlag. Then we met with an amateur caver, a member of the Czech Speleological Society, who explores the caves in the Moravian karst every weekend. Dad contacted him via email and set up a co-excursion to these world-famous caves. (Apparently there are karsts, basically large limestone deposits, all over the world, but the Moravian one is among the largest and most-explored.) This outing also entailed an outing to the opening of a local photographer's exhibition of photographs from the karst caves beneath the village Rudice. The exhibition was kicked off with an evening of "Czech country" music (no kidding, the photographer plays in a bluegrass band), goulash, and beer. While Dad was exploring the "real" caves, the rest of us visited the Macocha abyss and Punkva caves, the only portion of the karst open to tourists during the winter. The abyss is gigantic--basically a 120 meter deep gash in the middle of an otherwise normal forest. We also visited the giant baroque church at Křtiny u Brna, the castle and Jewish quarter in Boskovice (synagogue is pictured), the entrance to the caves at Sloup, the village Ostrov u Macochy, and the caving-historicali museum in the "Dutch" windmill at Rudice.

Upon returning to Brno, we have visited the tourist sites: St. James church, the main square, the cabbage market, the "oldest" restaurant in Brno (they were unfortunately out of halušky, my brother's new favorite, which I also highly recommend), Petrov hill and the cathedral, and Špilberk castle and the casemates. The high-point of yesterday was when I decided to sign a preliminary agreement for a studio apartment on the other side of town. The location is what some Brno residents might call the 'wrong side of the tracks'. It seems to be a part of town that was once an independent village called Husovice. The neighborhood is much different from my current one, and it has a more working-class feel. The apartment also has it's own bathroom, three radiators, a water heater, and the possibility of hi-speed internet. If I'm lucky they might even add a washing machine (!). There is no yard or stove, but I figured that these inconveniences will be outweighed by some of the disadvantages, previously discussed on the blog, that my current house features.


Travel in the Czech Republic=

16 February 2006
Viper Lunch, the Celtic Zebra
Cecil the Zebra, Lunch Privet

Arrival of Family

If alarm, fry a viol
Affirm oily larva
Via orally affirm
A firmly afar viol

Departure of Family

Yup, a lot reaffirmed
A leafed frumpy riot
A leafed frumpy trio
A feared frumpy toil
Off, a raptured Emily

A Cold Time Was Had by All

A coldly wilted Bahamas

Skiing in the Eagle Mountains

02 February 2006
Though we hadn't planned it, yesterday we spent a beautiful afternoon cross-country skiing in the Eagle Mountains (Orlické hory) of Eastern Bohemia. This actually started as a continuation of the heritage tourism. Just a few kilometers down the road is Pěčín, the village where my Mom's great-grandfather (probably) lived with his family. He decided to take his family to Iowa at some point in the late-nineteenth century. Fortunately his grandchildren and great-grandchildren got smart and moved to California, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, and other nice places with more interesting landscapes and weather, but less corn farming. A few people from the family have come back to see the area and we have a smattering of photos and accounts dating from 1972, 1976, and 2002. Unlike my in my stepdad's family, we don't know of any living relatives—or at least, no one in our family has kept in touch with anyone here or visited them for at least thirty years. I was content with driving around and not tiring my brain with translation of endless, multi-branched family trees, and so was everyone else.

There is only a three-bed pension (as far as we could tell) in Pěčín, according to the town's webpage. They don't seem to expect guests since we didn't see a single sign in the entire village with the word "pension." I guess it doesn't need a sign. You either know where it is and can stay there, or you don't. So after driving through the village on Tuesday night, we continued to Rokytnice v Orlických horách, a larger village down the road.

Fortunately this was a destination for skiers. Pěčín (and Rokytnice) are at the southern edge of a national nature reserve of the Eagle Mountains, designated in 1969. The reserve is on the Czech-Polish border and is intended to preserve the unique wildlife and ecosystems. The mountains are beautiful and many groomed ski trails are available for skiers who care to find them. This meant that there were a few pensions in Rokytnice. We stopped at Rampušák, the first one we saw on the village square. It is named after a legendary wanderer from the area – he was depicted in the 'lobby' as a bearded, pipe-smoking, felt-overcoat-wearing wildman. We were greeted by a very nice hostess and host who said we could stay the night, breakfast included!! We ended up staying two nights—the bathrooms had heated floors and the breakfasts were hearty, who could say no?

We departed from pension Rampušák on Wednesday morning with the intent to rent skis and tour the area on our own. We rented skis at a little sports store down the street. Then we climbed the village ski hill (a very short one) to find the groomed ski trail at the top. Everything was in dense fog. There is a curious and dramatic phenomena of inversion weather here, which has plunged the lower elevations here in fog for the last few days. Fortunately, the fog cleared to reveal gorgeous vistas of the surrounding mountains once we reached about 650 meters above sea level.

I didn't keep track of the exact statistics, but my estimates indicate that we undertook a demanding ski. We went at least 15 kilometers, probably more. In the course of the day we went up at least 400 meters in elevation – Rokytnice is at about 550 meters above sea level (in the foothills of the mountains), and the pass below Anenský vrch (the highest point we reached) was about elevation 950. We saw about ten World War II-era pillboxes and border-guarding posts (probably built by interwar Czechoslovakia and used by the Germans). We were accosted by inebriated Czech youths who were hiking on the ski trail, but we escaped with only one or two required shots of slivovice.

Other winter activity of late includes: Julia's mention of her New Year's resolution to attempt winter sports and report on ice-skating; the unsuccessful "ski" trip with Karla to Ždár nad Sázavou.

Heritage Tourism

01 February 2006
I mentioned that we were doing a bit of heritage tourism – visiting family, old places that they might have lived in. It can be an odd experience. Sometimes it is not clear that there is a direct relation. It's also strange to find that there is usually a language barrier and a "failure to communicate" in many cases. (For example, I failed to explain that winters are definitely harsh in Michigan's upper peninsula, though not necessarily with low temperatures; that my stepdad Mark is not retired but only works in the summers and still keeps a garden; or that, though we thought Czech beer was much better than the American counterpart, but we really did need some water or tea to drink, and that could not be supplanted by another shot of slivovice; etc.) Yet everyone we met seemed happy to meet us since they thought we might be distant relatives, and this was usually mutual. At least, this has been the case for us.

During the first week of my Mom's visit we have been looking for everything and everyone "Jindrich" because my stepdad's family name is Jindrich (Jindřich in Czech). So we traveled to Plzeň in order to visit the Jindřich family, at least the one that my stepdad's aunt has visited. She still corresponds with them, but they are not sure whether they are receiving letters from the one who visited or another who is interested in family history. (See, it's already confusing.) We found – not surprisingly – that there are many Jindřich families in the area. Once we found the correct village, we did make contact with the family the aunt has visited: Václav Jindřich and his wife, children, and grandchildren. They were all extremely nice, though I never did quite understand how we were related even after it had all been re-hashed and repeated about five times by all the adults (and translated from Czech to English or vice-versa by me). Translating, it seems, does not help the information stay in your head since it is taking up all your brain space with other things.

The next part of the trip was Jindrich's castle (Jindřichův Hradec), a medium-size town in south-east Bohemia. We did not fare so well here. There is a resemblance of name, of course, but this referred to an earlier nobleman who owned the castle. This was certainly not our ancestor. We didn't have any direct contacts here, but enjoyed exploring the beautiful renaissance town. The modern-day Jindrich's did not find such a warm welcome in Jindrich's castle:

-temperatures were in the –7 to –17 range for our entire stay
-we were rejected from the town ball for lack of formal attire
-we were charged the "recreation fee" twice to stay at hotels (even though there was little recreation to be done in the cold temps)
-the castle was locked during our entire stay so we had to satisfy ourselves with a look around the courtyards (still quite impressive and beautiful)
-the castle restaurant, along with almost all the others in town, closed its doors as soon as we walked by. (It claimed to be open until 15:00, and when we walked by at 13:00 the doors were open. When we returned at 14:00 the doors were locked and a sign outside said that the restaurant was only 15:00. ?)
-the pub ran out of beer and had to wait for a refill from the Pilsner Urquell tanker. (This wasn't a bad thing since we had a glass of beer the previous evening – these must have been the dregs. It was a surprise, though—I don't recall seeing the beer tanker in any other Czech towns!)