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Touring for Terezín

A cellist unearths classics of a lost era

Posted: April 18, 2007

By Frank Kuznik

František Brikcius is a man on a mission. An accomplished and well-traveled cello player, he’s chosen to devote his career to showcasing his instrument in solo performances and small ensemble programs. Brikcius is also a devotee of Terezín music, works produced by the many composers who were imprisoned at the World War II concentration camp in north Bohemia before being shipped to Auschwitz.

The parameters of Terezín music have been broadened to include Jewish composers of that era for Brikcius’ latest project, the Weinberger Tour. A duet program featuring Brikcius and pianist Tomáš Víšek, the project derives its name from Jaromír Weinberger, a well-known Czech composer who managed to escape to the United States before the Nazi invasion. Another composer on the program, Erwin Schulhoff, was not so fortunate. He was arrested and imprisoned in Prague in 1941, and died a year later in the Wülzburg concentration camp in Bavaria.

To anyone who’s heard their work, the music of the Terezín-era composers offers a startling contrast to the perilous conditions under which they lived and worked.

“The music is beautiful,” Brikcius says. “I feel it’s important to play these pieces, not because of what the composers went through, but because it’s great music.”

The Weinberger Tour is in some ways an extension of 7 Candles, a series Brikcius did last year with the Talich Chamber Orchestra honoring the work of two outstanding Czech Jewish composers, Gideon Klein and Pavel Haas, both of whom were imprisoned in Terezín. A third composer on that bill, Irena Kosíková, is the granddaughter of Karel Kosík, a Czech philosopher who managed to survive Terezín but whose work was later banned by the communists.

Haas and Klein are two of the better-known Terezín composers, but even their pieces are not played much. Brikcius attributes this to the general taste for mainstream classical music, particularly the upbeat fare commonly featured at tourist concerts.

“This isn’t Mozart,” he says. “That’s what a lot of people learn in school, and they play it every day. But to me, that’s like going to McDonald’s. I think it’s important to make time for less-known works, to bring people something they’ve never heard before.”

The Weinberger program features two pieces by its namesake, both duos for violin and piano arranged by Brikcius for cello and piano. The Schulhoff piece is a sonata for cello and piano that doesn’t get played very often because it’s technically difficult. There are also two premieres on the program: A world premiere of a new piece by Kosíková, and the Czech premiere of a “lamento” by James Simon, a Berlin-born composer who was imprisoned at Terezín. He wrote this moving piece after learning of the death of his sister.

Though Terezín offers a thematic departure point for Brikcius’ latest project, the music would hold up on its own regardless of the circumstances, especially since most of it was written prior to the composers’ life-or-death situations. And this is a wonderful opportunity to hear two fine craftsmen honor their legacy.

“I’m very proud to perform with Tomáš Víšek,” Brikcius says. “He’s an amazing pianist, and when you work with him, you don’t have to say much. You just play.”

The Weinberger program premieres at the Spanish Synagogue in Prague next week, then goes on summer hiatus before starting a fall tour through a number of Czech cities and memorial sites, including Lidice and Terezín, before returning here for several performances in October. And you can still catch the 7 Candles concert, which Brikcius is reprising with the Talich orchestra at Terezín May 10.

By Frank Kuznik

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