Awash in vat of musical goulash

Sun Journal

Prague: Music is big business in the Czech Republic's capital. But an excess of concerts is ruining the city's musical reputation, critics complain.

July 05, 1999|By Eva Munk | Eva Munk,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Many cities are known for particular products: Damascus for steel, Cincinnati for chili, Antwerp for diamonds and Washington for politicians.

Prague has music.

On any Sunday afternoon, more than 20 classical concerts are going on in the city. Melodies pour from every church, chapel and synagogue -- even from the stairs of the National Museum and the battlements of the Prague Castle.

Highbrows can catch dinner and an opera any night of the week. Lowbrows can get a crash course in classical music just by walking through town and listening to the sidewalk musicians.

Music is big business here. In fact, music critics complain, the city is awash in a vat of musical goulash.

"Rote craftsmanship often prevails over quality," writes critic Petar Zapletal, adding that the excess of concerts is ruining the city's musical reputation.

The brunt of his disapproval is directed at concerts played in Prague's many churches, basilicas, rotundas and cathedrals. They cater mostly to the throngs of tourists who can afford to shell out 400 crowns ($11) for a ticket, and who, after a long day of sightseeing, want mainly to get inside and rest their feet.

Often, these concerts feature "classical hits" by Mozart, Vivaldi and Handel, sawed out by mediocre string quartets like so many planks of plywood.

According to Marie Petrova, director of the Anima music agency, bad musical agents are to blame.

"You don't need any musical education to have an agency," she complains. "Some of these guys know a few violinists and think they can just rent a church and wait for tourists to pour in.

"Of course, they charge the same amount as the good agencies do."

Such unscrupulous amateurs commit transgressions against musical taste: giving organ concerts on electric organs, or hiring nonprofessional musicians and then overworking them.

"I meet these `church concert musicians' in pubs and they're always rushing from one concert to the next," says flute player Josef Kocurek. "They barely have time for a beer."

Before 1989, when the Communists were overthrown, church concerts were banned.

"The Communists looked askance at anything having religious overtones," Petrova says. "If we wanted to play Handel's `Messiah,' we called it by the German names of the arias. They never figured it out."

After 1989 the churches began to rent out space for concerts in order to cover maintenance costs. Enterprising musical agents caught on quickly. Today, more than 64 agencies vie for the chance to play "Ave Maria" to the masses.

Everyone from the archdiocese down gets a cut of the profits: Prime church space goes for as much as $800 an hour.

Of course, not all of Prague's churches are out to fleece unsuspecting tourists. Many of the musicians who perform in these concerts belong to one the town's many orchestras and are moonlighting to supplement their meager salaries. The $40 they make per concert helps, says Petrova.

Of course, at another concert you can get a store clerk who plays the violin for $11. But word gets around. This is a small town.

As for the unimaginative repertoire, most agents say that classical hits are what concertgoers want.

"Most people go to these concerts to relax and hear melodies they know," says cellist Pavel Belousek of the Prague Chamber Orchestra.

"And don't think that just because a melody is popular, it is easy," he adds. "You have to play these pieces people constantly hear on CDs and the radio impeccably."

So visitors to Prague who want to hear well-loved classical melodies in beautiful surroundings, and whose standards are not as strict as those of music critics, are likely to be happy with these church concerts.

But try to separate the grain from the chaff.

One tip is to avoid concerts advertised with pamphlets that a student dressed like Mozart shoves into the hands of passers-by, featuring the same pieces played by the same string quartet twice a day, three days a week. The performers will play like automatons.

Tourists who don't want to sit still through an hour and a half of music can fill their pockets with change and hit the pavement -- or cobblestones. Many of the artists playing on street corners are professional musicians.

"People used to confuse street playing with begging and look down on it," says Kocurek, whose five-piece Prague Funfair Orchestra is one of the few bands allowed to play on the square in front of the castle gates. Four of the band's five members are concert musicians who prefer the freedom of the sidewalk to the rigors of orchestra life.

"We got permission to play here after we played at the presidential inauguration nine years ago," Kocurek says, adding that he pays the castle 15,000 crowns a month (about $400) for this prime piece of real estate. It's more than he can earn from the black felt hat on the pavement at his feet -- right next to an inviting stand of CDs.

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