Czech composer Leoš Janáček was celebrated last week on the University of North Texas campus during a weeklong International Janáček Festival and Conference, a collaboration between UNT's College of Music and the Janáček Academy of Music and the Performing Arts in Brno, Czech Republic. Janáček created some remarkable music in his career, none of which was heard at Friday evening's concert.
That's because this concert, Musica Bohemia: Masterworks by Czech Baroque Composers, presented at the Murchison Performing Arts Center, was an opportunity for the university's baroque ensembles to strut their stuff, and for the most part, strut it they did. The UNT Baroque Orchestra, Baroque Trumpet Ensemble, and Collegium Singers performed nine works by eight Czech composers, all but one transcribed and edited by the orchestra's director, Paul Leenhouts.
Baroque instruments are notoriously finicky and tricky to play, which makes the accomplishments of the UNT student performers all the more remarkable. Sure, there was the occasional fractured note in the brass or out of tune passage in the strings. But unlike modern instruments, which are generally crafted with such technological skill that the musician must take responsibility for any such vagaries, baroque instruments are inherently imperfect, so the music will be imperfect, too.
But somehow, that was part of the charm of Friday night's concert. As the string players' unwound gut strings slowly went slightly flat over the course of a sonata, the musicians for the most part skillfully adjusted, and our ears, accustomed to quite different sounds coming from strings and brass, began to adjust, too. However, the slight imperfections and quirks are rather like the imperfections in an old mine cut diamond. They're not for everybody. Many people prefer the brilliance of a modern diamond cut by computer, just as many people prefer the crisp precision of music played on contemporary instruments. But baroque music played with such devotion by students who have given so much time to learning the intricacies of this special craft appeals to those who, like those who love antique diamonds, want something a little out of the ordinary, something, perhaps, perfect in its imperfections.
And out of the ordinary Friday's concert certainly was. Works on the program spanned over a century, from the 1650s to the 1760s, providing listeners with a potpourri of unusual offerings. The musicians skillfully navigated rarely heard works including the sonata Sancti Polycarpi by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, arranged for baroque trumpet ensemble, bass sackbut, timpani and organ. These valveless brass instruments—the sackbut is the ancestor to the modern trombone—produce a sound notably less bright than that of modern brass instruments, but the musicians extracted effective timbres from their horns.
The UNT Baroque Orchestra was featured in several other pieces. Principal violinists rotated for each of the pieces; the standout here was Josip Kvetek in Samuel Friedrich Capricornus' sonata Á 8 Instrumenti in A Minor (1667). His tone and ornamentation were both admirable.
Of the many obscurities on the evening's program, the most interesting discovery was Jan Dismas Zelenka's Miserere in C minor. Although the first adagio movement had the choir dragging a bit behind the orchestra, the overall effect of the piece, concluding with a dramatic plea for mercy (the literal meaning of "Miserere") was spine-tingling. Soprano soloist Angela Bou Kheir, resplendent in bright pink hair, excelled.
The orchestra and soloist Kimary Fick performed one movement of a traverso (baroque wood flute) concerto in E minor by František Benda. Although the program was already rather long, hearing the entire concerto would certainly have been welcome, as both the composer and instrument rarely receive airings. Fick proved an able soloist—in her cadenza, she demonstrated both her skill and the possibilities and, occasionally, limitations of her instrument as compared to those of a modern flute.
Even though Janáček was absent from the concert program of this Janáček Festival performance, there were certainly enough other fascinating tidbits and fine performances to make it worth the visit to Denton. The festival began Wednesday and concluded Saturday, and included performances by the Symphony Orchestra, student and faculty chamber groups, University Singers, the A Cappella Choir and UNT Opera. These ensembles did, in fact, play the music of Janáček, as well as that of some of his Czech contemporaries, Antonin Dvořák and Josef Suk.