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Washington Musica Viva, Reaching for the Czech

Saturday, December 11, 2004; Page C03

The Czech Republic is a relatively small country, but it has a large and varied musical culture. The operatic segment of that culture has been relatively neglected in this country until the recent development of surtitles, but now the operas of Dvorak, Smetana and Janacek are finding their way into, and greatly enriching, the American repertoire.

A more accessible kind of Czech music, chamber music of the 19th and 20th centuries, was explored by Washington Musica Viva in a superbly performed concert Thursday night at the Czech Embassy. The program was neatly divided between the totally familiar (Dvorak's Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81) and the totally unfamiliar (Martinu's "Songs on One Page," Smetana's "Evening Songs" and Alois Haba's "Suite for Cello Solo in the Sixth-Tone System"). The moderately familiar Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 2, by Josef Suk, Dvorak's son-in-law and a noted violinist, opened the program.

Mezzo-soprano Karyn Friedman, left, violinist Sally McLain and pianist Carl Banner's performance was well-coordinated and rhythmically propulsive. (Marilyn Banner)

In their beautifully coordinated and rhythmically propulsive performance, Musica Viva highlighted two elements that have made Czech music special: the vitality of dance forms and the exquisite cadences of folk melody. The Dvorak quintet was imbued with dance forms; its haunting slow movement is a dumka and its Scherzo is a furiant. Dvorak also influenced Suk to make the slow movement of his trio a tango.

Surprises on the program included the two song cycles beautifully sung by mezzo-soprano Karyn Friedman with Musica Viva founder Carl Banner at the piano.

Haba's suite, played with authority by cellist Jodi Beder, who has made a specialty of this music, is composed in microtones with 36 notes to an octave, where the standard chromatic scale has only 12. It is a tribute to the skill of both the composer and the performer that this exotic composition sounded totally listener-friendly.

-- Joseph McLellan

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