Beerthoven's Czechs Mix
This program of music by three Czech composers made big music feel right at home in the state where everything's bigger
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Nov. 29, 2019
Kolaches. Polkas. Painted Churches.
Texas just wouldn't be Texas without Czech culture – and those of us in the central part of the state are especially keen to that idea, since this is where the largest concentration of Czech immigrants settled in the 19th century. With their names, foods, and traditions all around us, it made sense for Austin's Beerthoven concert series to devote a full program to music by Czech composers. The three featured in the puckishly titled Czechs Mix – Antonín Dvorák, Bohuslav Martinu, and Bedrich Smetana – may not have made it to the Lone Star State themselves (though Smetana does have a town here that bears his name), but in parts of the concert, their work had you feeling that if they had, they would have fit right in.
Now, Dvorák's Slavonic Dances could never be mistaken for the boot-scootin' that goes on in local honky-tonks, but they had a wildness in their performance here, a rowdy energy that could have come right out of the rodeo. In Op. 46 No. 8, played as a piano duet, Dr. Linda Angkasa and Beerthoven leader Daniel Swayze came crashing down on the keys with the force of broncos bustin' out of the gate. Even in Op. 72 No. 16, which floats along on a breeze of nostalgia for much of the time, they found places to infuse the music with a fervency that almost rose to fury.
In the Sonatina in G Major that followed, violinist Christabel Lin seemed to take her cue from Angkasa and Swayze, fiercely drawing her bow across the strings until the music blazed like a prairie fire. As beautifully as she handled the lyrical passages, Lin always appeared eager to get back to the passionate sequences where she could really cut loose.
In much the way that you wouldn't confuse Dvorák's dances with any two-steppin' in a roadhouse on Saturday night, you wouldn't confuse his five Biblical Songs with anything you'd hear in a country church on Sunday morning (particularly as sung in Czech). Still, the reverence and devotion in Icy Monroe's voice was familiar. The spirit was there, and when her soprano took these sudden leaps up the scale, her voice took wing like a dove from the Hill Country brush that you felt was soaring just over your head.
For a duet by Martinu, Lin teamed with cellist Denise Ro, though it came across more like a competition – the two instruments racing up the scale as if it were a hill, then tumbling down and racing up again, the vigor in their bowing like they were elbowing each other out of the way to take the lead. Of the three composers on the bill, Martinu was the most recent, working in the early and mid-20th century, which gave this piece a unique expressionistic tension that the two musicians threw themselves into. It had a big energy.
A bigger energy – perhaps the biggest of the concert – was saved for last. Smetana's Piano Trio in G Minor was written in the wake of great tragedy in the composer's life: the death of his 4-year-old daughter from scarlet fever. The work teems with powerful emotion, with anguish and grief on an elemental scale. A visitor to West Texas might have seen something like it in a raging thunderstorm, with sheets of rain lashing a mountain range, and the musicians here pulled that storm into the upstairs of Austin Saengerrunde on a sunny afternoon. It was the grand finale of showing us what makes these Czech composers at home in this state. We like everything bigger in Texas, and that's just what their music gave us.
Czechs MixAustin Saengerrunde, 1607 San Jacinto