Wed., May 26, 2011: Heritage

Conductor Jiří Bělohlavek (left) confers with conducting/composing student Pavel Trojan Jr at a Prague Spring rehearsal


Protect Your Heritage

The older, white-haired Czech gentleman stands in the movie auditorium and says firmly to the American man seated at the podium, “Thank you, one thousand times. We shall never forget you.”

The American is Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He’s just presented the two-hour DVD he’s created and narrates about the life and work of Gustav Mahler.

Mahler was born in today’s Czech Republic, in a part of the country shaped by both Bohemian and Moravian influences, a heritage highlighted and finally given credit in the new video biography.

During various previous political empires, native Czech composers, conductors, and musicians such as Mahler were identified as German, or Austrian, or discredited, or ignored. Only now is the rest of the world beginning to discover the contributions to classical music from a long and deep Czech heritage, a fact that impels the white-haired gentleman to express his gratitude.

Student Catherine Lytle meets conductor and now musician-biographer Tilson Thomas. 'You are the person for whom I'm doing all this,' he tells her.

Catherine Lytle, 14, is a Czech-American student at the English College in Prague. At the DVD screening last week, in periwinkle blue shorts set and braids, she tells Mr Tilson Thomas, “I love music more than anything. You’ve shown me what I have to do [with my life].”

Later, she tells Opus Osm that she sings, plays the violin, flute, and piano, and loves learning. She adds, “I’ve always loved music more than anything. This has shown me what I could be — I could be anyone I want to.”

She’s just beginning to discover what it means to have a heritage to connect to.

Thumbing through Mozart

Imagine holding a musical heritage in your hands — paging through original transcriptions penned by Dvořak or examining an original score of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Students and scholars can do that, thanks to the donation of some of the oldest classical materials from former concert violinist Harriett Emerson’s personal collection. In 2006 the native Texan made the gift to The Prague Conservatory in honor of her Czech violin teacher Emanuel Ondříček. He was one of the foremost composer-teachers of his generation, who emigrated to the US in the 1940s.

Harriett Emerson

She spoke to Opus Osm at a reception and concert this week in honor of the establishment of the Emerson-Ondříček Master Class Fund for Czech students of music.”Now, violin students can see the original markings of the great composers, about phrasing, fingering, and bowing,” she explains, then adds, “A violinist doesn’t have to follow them, but at least they can think about it.”

Mrs Emerson studied music at the University of Texas, in New York, Prague, and Milan, and in 1963 performed 89 concerts in a 3-1/2 month European tour for the US government. She also operated her own travel agency for about 25 years. She has seen the world.

“In spite of the desire for globalization and diversity,” she advises, “I would recommend to each and every one: Protect your heritage. It’s yours to have or — to lose.”

She repeats: “It’s yours to lose.”

An excellent argument for the importance to each of us of classical music — even for the youngest of us. — oo

– Mary Matz, editor

Photo Credits: Miroslav Setnička, Mary Matz

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