Sunday, March 27, 2011

Zdeněk Lukáš' Viola Concerto at the Harrisburg Symphony

The man (see photo, left) composed “nearly 400 compositions – six operas, seven symphonies, four dozen concerted works” (that is, for soloist and orchestra), “a wealth of chamber and piano music, scores for radio plays, songs, accompanied and a cappella choral pieces and many arrangements,” according to Richard Rodda’s program note, and yet it was probably safe to say no one in the Forum last night, listening to the Harrisburg Symphony, its principal violist Julius Wirth (see photo below, right) and conductor Stuart Malina performing the Viola Concerto by Zdeněk Lukáš, had ever heard a note of music by this man or even knew his name.

In fact, before they planned the program for this month's concert, neither had conductor and soloist. Along with other applications of modern technology in today’s artistic life, we in Harrisburg owe this performance of Lukáš’ concerto to iTunes – because that’s how they found out about it.

And it became what is presumably not only the first performance in Harrisburg but the North American premiere – in fact, the second performance ever of the piece.

According to Julius’ comments at the post-concert “talk-back,” the concerto was composed, premiered and recorded in 1983, then everything – score and the orchestral parts – was shelved in a library in Prague. When the orchestra’s librarian, Linda Farrell, tried tracking it down, it took numerous phone calls and letters to locate it (with the help of a translator) and, since there was no time to produce new parts, they photocopied the original hand-written parts – published but never engraved – and mailed them off to America for only its second performance!

Such is every composer’s nightmare – if not to gain an audience in the first place, then to be forgotten after death.

How, exactly, was it “discovered”?

Well, like America and Columbus, “discovered” may not be the right word – perhaps an allusion to Indiana Jones is more appropriate, tracking down and unearthing a possible treasure in the Ark of Lost Manuscripts. Well, except the concerto wasn’t exactly “lost,” either. I mean, it had been recorded and it was the fact the recording company had decided to reissue it as a CD which happened to end up on iTunes which led to this “discovery.”

Stuart tells the story that he had decided he wanted principal violist Julius Wirth to be a soloist during the 2010-2011 Season. When they began discussing possible repertoire – the viola does not have the wealth of options to choose from like the violin or the piano – and since one after the other didn’t pique Stuart’s interest, he decided to do what most internet savvy people do these days: check out iTunes.

So he did a search under “viola concertos,” checked out those he wasn’t familiar with and, based on those 20-30 second sound-bytes they offer you as samples, thought this one by somebody named Lukáš sounded “really cool.” So he decided to download it (Julius chimed in at this point, “and it was only 99 cents!”) and once the two of them finally managed to connect via e-mail, the violist agreed with the conductor. Not only did he not know the piece or the composer, he didn’t know how to do a search on iTunes, so now that that’s been remedied, the next phase of the quest was on.

There’s not much information available but, judging from the Wikipedia entry, this is not an unknown composer waiting to be discovered: the viola concerto (1983) is Op.185, meaning it’s the 185th work he published (opus is Latin for ‘work’) – and there’s a piano trio entitled “Rotlevův šlojíř” dating from his last year, 2007, that is Op.354. Considering Beethoven’s last work to be sent to his publisher was Op.135, it would appear Zdeněk Lukáš is a prolific composer with a supportive publisher.

His publisher’s representative is Boosey, a major international publishing house – you can read their bio of him at their website, here - where you can read a ‘snapshot’ (short bio) or a more detailed account (click on ‘biography’).

The name is pronounced ZDEN-yĕk LOO-kahsh (the accent on the á is not a quantitative accent as we think of it, but indicates a longer vowel than the shorter, almost neutral-sounding vowel it would be otherwise, for example the way Americans pronounce Lukas Foss) and is maybe of Hungarian origin, ethnically, but he is clearly a Czech composer.

And I wasn’t surprised to hear hints of Czech folk music and Czech composers like Dvořák, Smetana and Janáček at various points throughout the concerto, all part of his cultural heritage, but also other Central European composers almost any Central European composer in the 20th Century either embraced or ignored, the Hungarian Bela Bartók and the Polish composer, Witold Lutosławski (I could add Wojciech Kilar but that’s more likely because (a.) I know some of his music and (b.) he’s more heavily influenced by Bartók and Lutosławski than Lukáš).

In addition to outright quotation from folk-songs or imitations of them, there is also the use of an octotonic (or eight-note) scale, common to many Eastern European folk cultures – instead of the traditional 7-note C Major scale. based on a standard pattern of whole-steps and half-steps,

C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C

or the C Minor scale,

C – D – E-flat – F – G – A-flat – B-natural – C

This folk-based eight-toned scale (heard in many works by Bartok and Stravinsky, among others) would be a different configuration of alternating whole-steps and half-steps, like

C – D – E-flat – F – G-flat - A-flat – A-natural – B – C

This often gives it that exotic sound, slightly gritty, tinged with the minor mode as opposed to the brighter major mode.

But it also, significantly, lacks the all-important “dominant” note G which forms the basis of the most satisfying harmonic cadence that defines classical tonality – the G chord (dominant) resolving to the C chord (tonic). This, then, gives it a unique harmonic sound distinct from what “urban, trained” composers were writing in what we normally think of as Western Music (classical or otherwise).

Like Bartók and Dvořák before him, Lukáš studied folk music and, like them, not only arranged it but eventually incorporated the hallmarks of the music into his own to create a style that is identifiable in its nationalism.

Dvořák did this primarily because this was the music he grew up with, a butcher’s son from a small village outside Prague. But when he wanted to be accepted by the wider world (that is, the Austrian Empire who controlled his native Bohemia), he shed these influences to write in an acceptable Germanic style, especially in the manner of first Wagner, then Brahms. It was only later, having made the necessary professional break, that he returned to the folk-song style that so identifies him today.

Bartók began a systematic study of true Hungarian folk music – up till then, most people confused it with the popular music of the gypsies – but not purely out of nationalist pride during the early years of the 20th Century when Austrian control of Hungarian politics and culture was weakening: he did it because, as time would prove, these songs and their ancient traditions were being forgotten by the younger generations who, moving to the city, no longer needed to make their own music and could listen to radio and recordings, instead.

It was a similar political action to the Austrian occupation of Bohemia and Hungary that turned Lukáš from an arranger of folk-songs into a composer with a more serious intent: the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia and the brutal repression of the uprising of 1968 known as “Prague Spring.”

When I was listening to the first two rehearsals on the concerto this past week, my first response regarded these past voices as they’d pop up – wishing he’d listened to a little more Bartók than Dvořák. There were these crunchy tone-clusters in the strings that reminded me of Lutosławski, especially the way they were used like punctuation and sometimes resolving that crunchiness to an open and more pure-sounding major triad. But eventually, as the piece progressed, I was becoming aware of the composer’s voice, blending all these elements into his own style – and then the influences of these other composers became more the influence of what influenced them: the folk songs and rhythms, their shapes and turns-of-phrases, their ornamentation, especially in the gorgeous chorale-like tune that opens the slow movement. Between that and the fanfares of the last movement, I was wondering if these were original themes that sounded like folk songs or more likely quotations from actually folk melodies.

As conductor and soloist tried to cajole the orchestra into playing this music “less classically” (less “nicely”) and more roughly (“pesante,” in the manner of the rougher outlines of folk music as opposed to the niceness associated with urban culture) – “there should be blood on the stage” – I began to hear something that speaks to a lot of Czech composers, an historical event that defines their cultural heritage: the Battle of the White Mountain (then outside Prague) in which the Bohemian and Germanic Protestants lost to the Catholic Hapsburgs of Austria in 1620, the start of the Austrian occupation of the area that lasted until Europe was redesigned following World War I in 1918, almost 300 years later. Beneath this defeat, Czech (or Bohemian) pride continued to survive from one generation to the next like a rallying cry not to forget, just as, if the British had succeeded in crushing the Revolution at Bunker Hill, Americans would have waited and waited, hoping for a time when, somehow, they would no longer be a British colony.

Whether these two “songs” – the 2nd Movement’s hymn and the 3rd Movement’s fanfare – refer to the White Mountain (now a part of the city of Prague) or not, I have no idea, but it gave me a deeper sense of what this Czech composer was about, writing in an emotionally charged nationalist style only 15 years after the Soviet repression of the Prague Spring of 1968.

I was not surprised, then, to read this line in the publisher’s biography:

“After the tragic year of 1968, Lukáš turned to a sort of intuitive aloneness and directed his creative energy to developing a personal melodic and rhythmic style, the sources of which are comparable to the inspirational background of Carl Orff – the Czech language, Czech folklore and pre-classical music.”

This event also infused Czech-born composer Karel Huša who was living in the United States at the time and watching the events unfold on the international TV news as Soviet tanks rolled through Prague’s ancient streets – his family still lived in Prague and he could not contact them to find out how they were. His “Music for Prague 1968” which I heard barely a year later is still one of the most powerful compositions I’ve ever heard. I could here the essence of this YouTube excerpt – essentially a call to the barricades – echoed in the opening of the last movement of Lukaš’ Viola Concerto, though perhaps an echo going back to the even older battlements of the White Mountain.

At 4:03 into the Huša excerpt and especially from the hair-raising build-up at 5:30 to the end, you can hear the start of the 15th Century chorale, Ye Who are Warriors of God – which every Czech would know, just like Americans know their “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The hymn-tune also figures into the nationalist tone-poems of Bedřich Smetana's Ma Vlast, "Tabor."

(In the “relevance” sub-topic for classical music, think also of what we’ve been seeing lately in current events from North Africa and the Middle East.)

I was amused to discover that Lukáš spent much of his career working for a Czech radio station in Plzen (better known as Pilsen, a town famous more for its beer), hired there in 1953 as an editor and literary manager until 1964, where he also founded a choir “Česka Pisen” (Czech Song) for whom he arranged many folk songs.

So, my conjectures and associations aside, here is a viola concerto that needs to be heard – especially by viola players looking for something outside the usual Bartók-Hindemith- Stamitz-Telemann cycle - not because those works are tired or trite, just because they are so few.

While it’s not a perfect piece – there are questions of some awkward transitions that could be harmonic issues that need worked out by the performers or could’ve been edited more clearly by the composer; and, frankly, the ending is kind of odd for a concerto (the soloist doesn’t get much of a build-up to that final high note and then there’s a long orchestral paragraph before the work ends fairly abruptly) – it’s certainly a welcome addition to the repertoire and I hope other adventuresome violists and conductors will take up the cause.

And hey, what about some of the other 340-some works he published? What are they like?!

- Dick Strawser


  1. I first encountered Lukas about 1983 when I accidentally taped his Bagatelles for Orchestra off the radio. It took nearly 20 years to track down a proper recording of this work (as an LP) and then I subsequently found a bunch more of his works through Czech music websites (and a visit to Prague). For the last decade, I've basically been buying every album of his music I can as it appears.

    He has written quite a lot of viola music, but he has some terrific choral music such as the Op.176 Missa Brevis, Op.252 Requiem per coro misto and the Op.311 Te Deum. He is a prolific composer but he has a very high hit rate in my sampling.

  2. I've been trying to locate the music to this concerto for over 2 years. I'd really like to play it but I see it's rather difficult to get a hold off. What's the latest on publishing?

    1. Let me check with the folks behind the scene at the Harrisburg Symphony and I'll get back to you.

    2. The US branch of Boosey & Hawkes arranged for the rental of the concerto for the Harrisburg Symphony and confirmed they do still rent this one. Contact them at if you’re in the United States. Otherwise, contact someone through the Boosey website. Julius Wirth said there is no viola/piano reduction available.