Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Interviews

An Interview with Czech Composer
Sylvie Bodorova and a Visit to
Gustav Mahler's Birthplace

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column, December 17, 2004, under headline, "A Moving Visit to Gustav Mahler's Czech Republic"

The Nativity of Jesus Christ has indeed inspired some of the world's most beautiful music. But the music of the Jewish tradition has been enriched by the triumph of faith over fear as embodied in the story of Judas Maccabaeus, which resulted in the joyful Hanukkah holidays.

Like Christmas, Hanukkah inspires musical minds to new creations. One profoundly thrilling new work I heard in recent years is an oratorio entitled "Juda Maccabeus" composed by Sylvie Bodorova of the Czech Republic.

Her work, which combines a contemporary harmonic vocabulary with melodic and rhythmic elements of traditional Jewish music, premiered last spring in the Cathedral of St. Vitus, which sits like a jewel on the hill above Prague in the Czech Republic.

I did not witness the premiere, but I have listened to its live recording, distributed on an Arco Diva CD. Unlike much contemporary music, "Juda" is concisely, urgently thrilling. It summons high drama with a riveting blend of narration, traditional chant, gorgeous solo vocal and choral selections, and alternatively chilling and spiritually moving instrumental passages. The finale contains what seemed to me the most exciting "modern" music to emerge in the 21st century. It reminded me of music by a Czech-Jewish composer whose work spanned the turn of the 20th century: Gustav Mahler.

Not unlike his ethnic fellows, Mahler once lamented, "I am three times homeless � as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world." If Mahler were to visit now, he would have to alter that statement to something more like, "The world is my home. I am claimed by the Czechs, the Austrians, the Christians, the Jews, and, in fact, the whole world."

A couple of months ago my husband and I were traveling to the south of the Czech Republic on a pilgrimage of sorts to Kaliste and Jihlava. Kaliste was the village where Mahler was born, and Jihlava where he spent his formative years.

Jiri Stilec � a recording company executive, music scholar and Bodorova's husband � was our host. He's also the person largely responsible for the Mahler restorations we were about to see.

About an hour and a half after leaving Prague, Stilec turned off the highway onto a narrow, apple tree-lined winding road, stopping at the first building before the lane curved into Kaliste. The building looked like a 19th century inn; a bronze plaque with a relief bust of Gustav Mahler dominated its roadside wall.

We were ushered first into a restaurant/gasthaus room that had been restored to its original style and had a smallish bar that made me think of American Westerns. Back in the 1850s, Mahler's father Bernard presided at the original version of this bar and room as its innkeeper.

The next room was huge. Mahler pictures and memorabilia hung on three walls; the fourth was dominated by a stage on which stood a splendid Bechstein concert grand piano.

Upstairs were student rooms with beds, modern plumbing and furniture. Several other larger rooms overlooked the beginnings of a garden and a gazebo-like stage area. "We wanted this place to be not just a museum filled with memorabilia of times past, but a new, vital place for students and scholars to study and perform music," Stilec explained. "Our restoration is planned for music festivals, concerts, study, lectures, and special events. Audiences, visitors and performers will be able to stay, work and eat here."

The idea for the center began in the 1990s when a group raising funds for the restoration of Beethoven's Bonn, Germany, birthplace held a benefit concert in the Czech Republic. While Stilec supported the effort, he wondered why the Czechs should not be doing the same thing for Mahler, one of their own native sons.

His idea caught on. Among the donors to the Mahler project were Opel, the Gilbert Kaplan Foundation, the Britten (Benjamin) Estate Limited, Panasonic/Technics, Thomas Hampson, Stan Ruttenberg, Luciano Berio, Zubin Mehta, Henry-Louis de La Grange, Donald Mitchell, Maxim Shostakovich, Marina Mahler (Mahler's granddaughter), Jiri Belohlavek (conductor of the Czech Philharmonic) and Valclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic.

Stilec also is involved in the restoration of the Gustav Mahler Hotel and Restaurant in Jihlava, where Mahler's father moved the family after Gustav's birth. Built in medieval times, the building more recently has served as an army barracks. Today its restored chapel and three large rooms provide performance venues and exhibition space for Jihlava's annual Fall Music Festival.

Monsieur La Grange, Mahler's definitive biographer, wrote, "When Mahler was born in Kaliste ... no one could have predicted that he would one day become one of the most famous composers on our planet ... Although Mahler's works are widely considered as belonging to the German tradition, they owe much to the inexhaustible wealth of music of various origins that he heard in his youth in Jihlava (and Kaliste). As an artist and composer, he became a citizen of the world, yet he never forgot the land of his birth to whose music he was deeply devoted."

And, after my recent visit to Kaliste and Jihlava, nor shall I.

Website for Sylvie Bodorova:

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