Chamberfest: Pražák Quartet honours the music their Czech homeland

Pražák Quartet: From the left: Vlastimil Holek, violin. Jana Vonášková, violin Michal Kanka, cello, Josef Kluson, viola.

Forty-six years is a long time to be with anyone. For a string quartet, it’s a lifetime of music. You need dedication, a sense of humour and a commitment to making good music, said Josef Kluson, who plays viola with the Pražák Quartet. He is a founder of the group.

“I don’t feel old. I feel experienced. I’m still in good form and working hard.”

Pražák is dedicated to Czech string music. The ensemble formed in 1972, in the Czech capital Prague. In fact, Pražák means, Kluson said, a resident of Prague.

It was a different world and definitely a different political time. In 1972, Czechoslovakia was a member of the Warsaw Pact and Communist-ruled. Today there is the Czech Republic and Slovakia, two independent nations.

But there is a constant for Kluson: “The music is the same. Interpretations can change. But we still keep our language, our accent and our inspiration.”

There has been some change in the quartet. The original first violin, Václav Remeš, left the ensemble in 2010, stricken by focal dystonia, a mysterious condition that can afflict musicians and affect their ability to control their instruments. It can end a career.

The three remaining founders kept going. “We decided to rejuvenate the quartet and brought a young woman on board. (Jana Vonášková) brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm and now we can make new (musical) experiments.” The other two members of the group are Vlastimil Holek, violin, and Michal Kaňka, cello.

The group originally came together while they were students at the venerable Prague Conservatory.

They weren’t involved in politics. It was the music of their nation that moved them.

“We were lucky at this time. We had the best schooling. When we won some competitions, the communists allowed us to leave the country and and we played everywhere in the world,” Kluson said.

“There was some bureaucracy” to overcome, he said, especially getting visas but the society generally had a great respect for cultural pursuits, Kluson said.

“I think the music and the culture generally, in the theatres and the concert halls, kept the nation alive,” he said.

This is the country that elected a playwright (Vaclav Havel) as president when it was freed from Soviet domination and Communist rule in the late 1980s.

There was a period of adjustment after the end of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc, Kluson said. After the revolution the Czechs had to figure out the new world they had entered. Kluson said the adjustment took some time.

“But I think we succeeded very quickly. Now the musical life in Prague is excellent. A new generation came along and brought energy and enthusiasm,” he said. This is especially true in bigger cities where there is a renewed enthusiasm for Czech music, he said.

“New festivals have started in past decade. The country has become wealthier. I was born in the Czech countryside. I come from a farm family. When I go home and see the people from my village, they are interested in the culture.”

Kluson comes by his musical career honestly.

“In my case, I didn’t want to do anything else but music. Really I wanted to leave the country for Prague to have as much music around me as I could.”

He started with the violin but at age 15 he switched to viola.

His parents weren’t musical. “They were farmers, they were connected to the rural life in the fields.”

Eventually he did leave, first attending a high school which offered arts instruction half the school day. The Czech education system continues this kind of support of the arts today, he says.

“It is one of the best things we have,” he said.

Then he enrolled in the Conservatory where chamber music was obligatory. He was introduced to other players and eventually they ended up living together in the school dorm rooms where they’d practice together after the school day ended. members moved in and out in those early years, he said. But eventually the ensemble solidified.

The quartet will be in Ottawa at Chamberfest on Tuesday playing a lineup of favourite pieces, all connected to the Czech musical tradition.

“We are playing a beautiful lesser known string quartet by (Antonin) Dvořák (String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major, Op. 51). Then we’ll play a piece by Alexander von Zemlinsky who was, for a time, the conductor at the Deutsches Landestheater in Prague.”

Finally they will play Bedrich Smetana‘s  String Quartet No. 1, JB 1:105 (From My Life).

While Dvořák is probably better known, Smetana occupies an important space in the history of Czech music, Kluson said. He wrote the first romantic opera in Czech, for example.

“He wrote eight operas and all Czechs know them well.”

The quartet being played on Tuesday evening is an autobiographical piece which describes the composer’s life from the beginning to the point when he became deaf, Kluson said, adding that Smetana wrote his best music after becoming deaf.

“He had an inner hearing. It’s just perfect. You don’t find mistakes in his harmonies. He had this perfect musical imagination.”

Pražák Quartet
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: Aug. 7 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.