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Paul Mauffray: "Prague is my muse'

Paul Mauffray: "Prague is my muse'

Posted: July 24, 2003

By Alan Levy

Up-and-coming conductor ties his future to Janacek

"The best way to appreciate Prague when you've lived here a while is to leave it," says Paul Mauffray, who pulled out in 1999 after more than five years. "You go away for a year or two and when you come back - even just to visit - you see all the things you took for granted, or even complained about, in a new light, with a new shine to them, with a sudden sense of wonder. Not just the architecture or the beauty of the landscape, but the pubs filled with smoke, reeking of beer with not a foreigner in sight; the sausage shops oozing uzene [smoked meat].

"Artistically, Prague is my muse. I can feel a new awakening musically, creatively, interpretively, everything. My soul rejoices. For a musician to be in the city where the composers you play actually lived - it gives you a completely different inspiration and spirit when you walk on the streets where Smetana walked, listen to Mozart in the house where he wrote the overture to Don Giovanni, wander in a garden where Janacek was, eat the same food that Dvorak ate.

"No matter how much I come back, I can't get enough of Prague. For the past four years, my suitcase has taken up residence in New Orleans, but my heart has stayed in Prague."

A Cajun Hoosier

Though he comes from Louisiana with a Cajun French last name, Mauffray (pronounced Moe Fray) was born a Hoosier in Muncie, Indiana. "But I was exported to New Orleans when I was 3 weeks old."

Only in his teens at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts did he focus on music. His gifts won him a full scholarship to Louisiana State University in the capital, Baton Rouge.

He spent two of his undergraduate years in Germany, studying musicology at Julius Liebig Universitat and conducting at Johannes Gutenberg Universitat: "Germany gave me my first chance to conduct orchestras. Once I picked up the baton, I knew it was my instrument. I'd started out to be a pianist, but now I could express more with my hands and my heart than with my 10 fingers."

Janacek revealed

Upon graduation in Baton Rouge, Mauffray conducted workshops and took master classes. At the beginning of 1993, he flew north to audition for the Juilliard School in New York. Before he went, he phoned the Metropolitan Opera to ask what was playing that week.

"Jenufa," he was told.

"Is that the name of the composer or the opera?" he wondered.

"It's an opera by Janacek."

Never having heard of Leos Janacek (1854-1928), Mauffray searched the bayou hamlet where he was living at the time: "Believe it or not, the public library in Slidell, Louisiana, had a CD of Sir Charles Mackerras conducting Jenufa in Czech."

He took the recording home and looked at the libretto in English and Czech "with all those silly symbols - little hooks and circles - over the letters. The Czech language has fascinated me from that moment. It was love at first sight. And when I played the CD it was love at first sound. Those words sent goose bumps down my spine. I began to feel them and even started to figure out their meaning. If I believed in reincarnation, I would swear to you that in a past life I was Czech.

"Even before I bought every Janacek opera I could lay hands on, I read the CD's biography of Sir Charles Mackerras. In his 20s, right after the war, he'd studied in Prague and discovered Janacek there. So here I was, 24 years old with no family obligations. Hey, the Wall was down and the world was open to me."

That spring, Mauffray went to a Columbia, South Carolina, workshop to conduct music by living composers who were present. In the luck of the draw, he was assigned Music for Prague 1968 by 71-year-old emigre composer (and 1969 Pulitzer Prize winner) Karel Husa, who encouraged the brash young maestro to take the giant step.

Speaking concert Czech

Back home, Mauffray studied Czech with Miloslav Hrdlik, an emigre musician in the New Orleans Symphony. Not only did Paul learn to speak the language, but Hrdlik also taught him "how to talk to an orchestra in Czech: how you say woodwind section, brass, strings, slower, faster, subdivide. So when I landed in Europe in June 1994, I was speaking concert Czech."

He timed his arrival in Prague to coincide with a performance of Jenufa at the State Opera. The next morning, Mauffray moved on to the east Bohemian city of Hradec Kralove, whose first-rate orchestra was preparing a program of Czech music with a different young conductor leading each selection. As it turned out, the one who was to do the concert suite from Janacek's opera, The Cunning Little Vixen, didn't show up. None of the Czech conductors knew the piece and neither did the orchestra, so they were about to cancel when Mauffray introduced himself and said: "Well, I could do it."

They found him a score and he sat up all night studying it. "Within my first week in the Czech Republic, I was conducting Janacek in concert." Then he adds: "It was fate - Osud," which is the title of a rarely performed Janacek opera to which Robert Wilson gave a stunningly lavish production at Prague's National Theater last year.

In Prague, Mauffray's tenacity won him a three-season stint as assistant to National Theater chief conductor Bohumil Gregor, for whom he conducted rehearsals of Janacek's KaEa Kabanova and Cunning Little Vixen, and Jiri BÂ?lohlavek for Jenufa. Along the way, Mauffray met his idol and role model Sir Charles Mackerras and was thrilled when Mackerras invited him to be his assistant for recordings of KaEa Kabanova and Dvorak's Rusalka - the latter with singers Renee Fleming and Ben Heppner and both with Mauffray rehearsing the Czech Philharmonic.

All of this, he acknowledges, was "the greatest education in the world," but it afforded virtually no visibility in Prague. So he returned to the States, where his career has been as checkered as any young maestro's: assistant conductor for operas in Walnut Creek, California, and El Paso, Texas; guest conducting the Oakland East Bay Symphony in California; and currently a finalist in competitions for music director and principal conductor of symphony orchestras in Monroe and Alexandria, Louisiana.

Even across the Atlantic, though, Janacek beckons. Mackerras called on Mauffray to assist him with a Metropolitan Opera production of The Makropulos Case and Sir John Eliot Gardiner summoned him to the Salzburg Festival in Austria in 2001 as his "cover," conducting rehearsals of Jenufa.

With "Janacek and His World" as the theme of this summer's Bard College music festival in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, fate decreed that Bard's president, conductor Leon Botstein, would hire Mauffray as his assistant conductor for the first American staging of Osud. The performances will take place in Bard's brand-new Richard Fisher Performing Arts Center, designed by architect Frank Gehry, who gave Prague its "Dancing Building." Labeled "alien space egg" and "mechanized space turtle," the Gehry building holds no perils for Mauffray.

"What's important to me," he says, "is that this is the seventh Janacek opera I've worked on." He has set his sights on next January's Janacek Festival in Brno, where all nine of the Moravian composer's operas will be presented. A few weeks ago, a role in Brno was in the works for Mauffray, but then an opera-house scandal of firings over siphoning of culture funds in the country's second city put everything on hold.

"No matter," says Mauffray philosophically. "It would be a dream come true just to attend all nine operas."

Alan Levy can be reached at

vital statistics

Born Dec. 16, 1968, in Muncie, Indiana

Education Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, bachelor's degree in music and German, 1992

Conductor in United States, 1992-94; in Czech Republic, 1994-99; in U.S. since 1999

Family "Single, still looking - for a Czech girl, I think"

Janacek's opera Osud (Fate) is performed at the Bard Music Festival, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, Wednesday, July 23; Friday, July 25; Sunday, July 27; and Aug. 1 and 2. Web site:

fishercenter. For other Janacek-related concerts Aug. 8-10 and 15-17, see

By Alan Levy

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