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Music Evoked Janáček Better Than Theatrics


Leoš Janáček

Several dozen people, curious about “Salon Séance: Janáček in Persona,” attended the Pickman Hall session Wednesday. After all, how many music schools hold séances? Being a huge Janáček fan (I devoted last summer to listening to nearly all he wrote and reading several Janáček biographies and much of his writings and letters), I could not resist communing with his spirit.

The 5 outstanding musicians—pianist Daniel Schlosberg, violinists Mari Lee and Yoojin Jang, violist Ayane Kozasa, and cellist Mihai Marica—did first-rate jobs. Schlosberg, playing five of the six pieces, made a dazzling impression. The promised séance, though, neither amused this listener, nor brought her any closer to a composer she adores. 

The evening began as the strings and pianist walked on stage with actor Philip Stoddard, who, as the ads might say, was Janáček. The playwright was Noelle P. Wilson; the director, Michael Södersten; the researcher/co-writer, Simon Angseop Lee. One of evening’s two excellent violinists, Mari Lee, is a co-creator of Salon Seance, which, according to the program book, brings together an actor with musicians, performing a curated program centered around [sic] a theme that is still relevant today.” Still relevant? What does that mean? Its promo promised: “The concept-concert unites an actor channeling the Czech composer Leos Janáček with musicians performing some his much-loved works. The composer, the performer, and (italics mine) the audience engage in a uniquely interdisciplinary presentation, that combines music, theater, history and literature.” The audience had no participation other than listening. History? None that I noticed. As for literature, only the mention of Janáček’s two children Vladamir and Olga, named for characters in Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” had connections to literature. A handsome onstage actor who played Janáček, in between pieces, and otherwise sat on a tall stool provided the theatrical elements. Those who knew his biography learned little.

Those of us who dislike chatter from the stage, and for whom biographical material belongs in essays may rebel against the concept of a séance, which supposedly brings the dead (or their spirits) back for a few moments, perhaps to impart some secret truths. In this case, the Philip Stoddard “acted” the curated/written part of the composer, and did his best to be convincing. But given his tepid and banal lines, one could see only acting and posturing, rather than embodiment of the composer’s frustrating and often sad biography. His first gesture, for example, was to walk to the piano and ask, “May I touch the keys?” after which the musicians and he joined hands. I guess this meant the séance was about to commence.

Luckily, howlers like this were rare, but so much essential to understanding Janáček’s life lay on the cutting room floor, “curated out.”

The magic began with the music. Schlosberg played the first two solo piano pieces to perfection. The first was the beguiling third movement Andantino from “V Mlách” (In the Mists) from 1912, which Richard Goode offered in Rockport last summer. Schlosberg’s interpretation both moved me and impressed me more. The actor mentioned the deaths of Janáček’s two children, Vladimir at age 2, and Olga at age 21 just before we heard the fourth movement from On an Overgrown Path (1908), The Madonna of Fŷdek which, like In the Mists, is filled with Janacek’s characteristically sudden, volatile mood changes, sometimes mid-phrase.

Cellist Steven Isserlis words sum up Janacek’s music pithily and perfectly, and came to mind many times during the musical parts of the evening, which were simply wonderful and gorgeously played: “Moravian composer of astonishing originality, one of a handful of great composers who stand quite apart from their times. His tender passion, his soaring imagination, his wild spontaneity are wondrous, elemental.”

The charming “Pohádka” (Fairy Tale) had impressed me on (Isserlis’s) CDs; what a pleasure to hear it live from the excellent violist Ayane Kozasa who also provided charming excerpts, arranged by Sebastian Androne-Navkanishi (b. 1989), from Janáček’s most successful opera, Jenufa. Violinist Mari Lee gave the Sonata for Violin and Piano (1915) a fine polish, after which we were treated to a superb performance of String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata” (1923). First violinist Yoogin Jang soloed exquisitely in the fourth movement.

Some of the actor’s lines involved Janáček’s impoverished childhood as the ninth of 14 children. At age 11 he was sent to a Augustinian monastery, and saw his beloved mother only once in three years. He lacked funds, chronically, and would draw, with chalk, keyboards on a table. He loved Russian culture. “Remember the Russian soldiers I mentioned? You can hear them in this movement” (of the violin sonata). A brief biography in the handout would have sufficed. For me, these bio schticks just didn’t add anything, but, of course, this is, alas, the séance’s main premise and promise.

How could the project have failed to mention the composer’s great love and inspiration, Kamila Stösslová? In 1917 when he was 63 and she 26. After they met in the Moravian resort town Luhačovic, he became immediately became infatuated with her, though both already were married to others. Janáček wrote Stösslová hundreds of letters (available translated and annotated by the Janáček scholar John Tyrrell in his splendid 1994 volume Intimate Letters), to which she only occasionally replied. Janáček’s love and devotion went unrequited, yet he freely admitted that she had inspired much of his late music, including the heroines of Katya KabanováThe Cunning Little VixenThe Makropulos Affair, the String Quartet No. 2 (Intimate Letters), and The Diary of One Who Vanished. Leaving her out was a serious oversight, like denying Peter Pears a place of honor in a Benjamin Britten séance.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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