Making music across an ocean Concert: A Czech composer influenced by American jazz joins the Columbia Pro Cantare tomorrow for "Celebration Jazz Mass."

May 01, 1998|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The "Celebration Jazz Mass," which Columbia Pro Cantare will perform tomorrow at the Jim Rouse Theater, owes its life to a stubborn Czech composer who secretly pursued a love for American jazz until the Communist state that condemned the music as decadent withered away.

Karel Ruzicka, 58, will play the piano for his "Mass," and his son, Karel Jr., 24, a jazz musician who divides his time between Prague and New York, the solo saxophone part.

"Before they started to play," the son says of his father's generation of jazz musicians, "we had nothing."

Pro Cantare's founder and director, Frances Motyca Dawson, discovered the "Celebration Jazz Mass" last summer when an ensemble of Pro Cantare singers toured the Czech Republic. She immediately asked to perform the American premiere.

But rehearsing the work across an ocean has not been easy, even with an award-winning compact disc of the piece for reference.

The choristers sang from a four-part vocal score printed by a computer music program, while Dawson and her pianist, Mark Husey, worked from a hard-to-read photocopy of the full score in manuscript notation.

Frequently, they could only guess at what the orchestra would be playing when the choir had a few bars' rest.

When the Ruzickas arrived in Columbia on Sunday, they and Dawson had much "woodshedding" -- note-by-note checking -- to do.

The piece has an easy-to-hum quality reminiscent of Dave Brubeck or the Modern Jazz Quartet, a musical style that is only natural from a composer who listened to jazz clandestinely on Willis Conover's famous program broadcast by Voice of America.

The program was heavy on classic jazz: Brubeck, Errol Garner, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans and Horace Silver.

"Everything was favorite for me," says Ruzicka in warmly accented English. "You can't imagine how your music helped us."

Ruzicka says the state's repression of such music was subtle. "Never they said you couldn't play jazz music, it's forbidden. But it was dangerous. One of our sources was also the American library in Prague, at the embassy. But people who used it [were] watched by the secret police."

In this frowning climate, jazz musicians such as George Mraz and Jan Hammer (perhaps best known for his theme for "Miami Vice") immigrated to the United States. Meanwhile, Ruzicka made a living as a teacher, pit orchestra musician and radio musician while playing jazz in little underground clubs or in friends' houses.

All that changed in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. By the PTC time Karel Jr. was old enough to know what kind of music he wanted to play, he could have it.

Indeed, now that there is an open jazz community in Prague, it's not experimental enough for the younger Ruzicka. He comes to New York as often as he can to play with newer artists of fusion, funk, highly individual blues, electronic experimentation and, most recently, emergent Cuban jazz players.

The elder Ruzicka says "celebration" in the title of his "Mass" doesn't refer to any particular event.

"The title is always problem for me," he shrugs, "and this title fits good on the piece."

But underneath his shrug is a real celebration of finally joining the international jazz community.

"We [were] really cut off," says Ruzicka of the Communist years. "You can listen to much music if you can buy the records, but if you have no physical contact with musicians, it's bad.

"So much in jazz depends on playing together. When you speak with the musicians, everyone gives you some message."

But the stunted and furtive performances he heard, and those he gave, had their beauty, too.

"The spirit of this music we understood."

'Jazz Mass'

Who: Columbia Pro Cantare with Karel Ruzicka Jr. and Sr., and Barbara Witmer, soprano

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow

Where: Jim Rouse Theater, Wilde Lake High School

Tickets: $15, $12 students/seniors (advance); $17, $14 students/seniors (door)

Call: 410-465-5744

Pub Date: 5/01/98

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