Music that speaks to us

Publication Date: Friday Nov 6, 1998

Music that speaks to us

In upcoming Stanford performance, Prazak Quartet focuses on Leos Janacek and his language-influenced compositions

by Jim Harrington

Why would a leading international ensemble like the Prazak Quartet tour in support of music by a man best known as an opera composer? Because the man in question is Leos Janacek.

"He's one of the greatest composers of the 20th century," said Josef Kluson, violist of this quartet from the Czech Republic. "Moreover, he's special because he created his own style."

Kluson and the rest of his group will perform "Passion and Creation: The Quartets of Leos Janacek" on Sunday at Stanford University's Dinkelspiel Auditorium. Accompanied by three actors, the quartet (Kluson; Vaclav Remes, first violin; Vlastimil Holek, second violin; and Michal Kanka, cello) will use the performance to illuminate the influence of the spoken word underlying the work of the Czech-born composer.

Janacek (1854-1928) was fascinated with regional Czech folk dialect and successfully incorporated many of its patterns into his music.

"He was listening to the melody of the language, and he tried to use it in his music," Kluson said in a recent phone interview.

The result is a musical style that mimics the spoken word: It's fast, with pronounced pauses, and melodic, without a hint of monotone.

"I think it's very easy to hear (those qualities) in the music," Kluson said.

Prazak, which was formed in 1972 by students at the Prague conservatory, will attempt to infuse the music with new meaning by introducing each piece with a multimedia production. Theatrical readings, musical excerpts and slide projections will preface the quartet's full performances of the evening's program.

The award-winning quartet will first tackle "Kreutzer Sonata" (1923), a work inspired by Leo Tolstoy's story of the same name. The music reflects the moods and emotions of a husband who kills his wife in a jealous rage. But while Tolstoy's text seemed to sympathize with the husband, Janacek's score leans in favor of the woman.

"Intimate Letters" (1928), Janacek's second and final quartet, overflows with the undisguised love that the composer held for Kamila Stosslova, a married woman 38 years his junior, to whom he wrote over 700 letters. This quartet would never be heard in full grandeur by the composer's own ears. It premiered shortly after Janacek's death.

Classical fans may know Janacek for acclaimed operas such as "Jenufa" (1904), "The Excursions of Mr. Broucek" (1920) and "Kata Kabanova" (1921). The composer's works have been performed widely in Europe for years, but only in the last decade or so has Janacek found a sizable audience in the United States. And--honest--it's more than just patriotism that motivates Prazak to bring Janacek's music to the public.

"He was--oh, I don't know how to describe it--he wanted things his own way," Kluson said. "Only his first compositions are influenced by Mozart or Mahler. Otherwise he created his own world of music.

"And it's beautiful."

What: The Prazak Quartet, accompanied by three actors, performs "Passion and Creation: The Quartets fo Leos Janacek."

When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford University.

How much: Tickets are $25 and $28 (students $3 off; youth ages 15 and under are half-price).

Information: Call 725-ARTS. 

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