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Clarinettist Igor Frantisak is a man of quick judgement and grand visions, both a musician and a manager. Fourteen years ago, his resilience, perseverance--and doubtless also his luck--allowed him to create the St. Wenceslas Music Festival. This takes place exclusively in churches in the old mining town of Ostrava and the adjacent region. Over its history, this festival became one of the best-known for classical music in the country and Ostrava has long since stopped being the "steel heart of the republic"--it is now a space pulsating with culture of all genres, and it seems as though a new, vitalising freshness is permeating into its surroundings. Igor Frantisak's festival is one of its unmistakeable flavours.

When did you come up with the idea of establishing the St. Wenceslas Music Festival in Ostrava, of having it in the autumn and only in sacred spaces?

I first had the idea about fifteen years ago. In meetings with friends and colleagues from the musical world, we'd recount our experiences of giving concerts in churches. We all agreed that sacred spaces provide us with extraordinary artistic experiences and give these concerts a deeper dimension. For this reason, me and several others decided to establish a non-profit organisation with the aim of realising an autumn festival in our region, and locating it exclusively in sacred spaces. The autumn was a bit thin for cultural life in our region, so this season was a good fit for the festival. Furthermore, on the 28th of September, when we inaugurated the festival, we celebrate the Day of Czech Statehood and commemorate the death of St. Wenceslas, patron of the Czechs.

Your festival is spread across sacred spaces in Ostrava, but also the surrounding cities and towns. Was this always the case?

Yes, that was one of the founding ideas. My aim was to get artistic productions of a high standard to the smaller cities and towns in the Moravian-Silesian Region, to places that aren't natural cultural centres, but where one can find gorgeous historical buildings, churches with wonderful acoustics and, last but not least, an enthusiastic audience. I think this is something that's appreciated both by our stable audiences and the artists themselves, who are warmly received. I'm also glad people are now prepared to travel out of town to see concerts, so the church hosts local audiences as well as listeners from Ostrava, Olomouc or Prague.

You focus on sacred and early music, but your concerts don 't only feature music written for sacred purposes. What do you understand when we say sacred music?

That's quite a complex issue. For me, sacred music is indelibly connected to sacred spaces, the spaces it was originally composed for. On the other hand, I see no reason for avoiding performances of purely instrumental music in churches. Rather, I would ask after the meaning of presenting sacred music in concert halls, which naturally lack the space of the nave with its distinctive reverberation and spiritual atmosphere. Many times, I was deprived of the fusion of the majestic acoustic and architectural beauty of a church with the character of the sacred music and religious texts. This is why we like to say that "a concert in a church is an experience". It is of course a matter of taste--or rather dramaturgical feeling--what kinds of music should be performed in sacred spaces.

That is an even more complex question. We often encounter extreme approaches: on one silk, we find those who claim that churches are not intended for music that is not directly sacred, like Gustav Mahler, on the other, there are often projects presented in churches that have depressive, dark or even perverse topics. Even though the idea of"taste" is subjective, do you yourself have a line you would not cross?

You are right to say that both these positions exist, and it is often difficult to find a balance in this respect. I am not only a dramaturg, but also a musician, which is why I can trust that my natural musical intuition (and more than fifteen years of experience in putting on almost 700 concerts in the most varied of churches) draws an imaginary line which I have no reason to cross. To be honest, I consider the dogmatically obstinate following of historical sediment in the form of allowing or banning certain music, as in the case of Gustav Mahler, to be utterly irrelevant. For me, his music is so deep and real that it does not even cross my mind to think about whether it is suitable for a place of worship. Incidentally, we performed his 2nd symphony at our festival a few years ago, in one of Ostrava's largest churches. It was an extraordinary success.

The first instalment of the festival featured 31 concerts in total. Do you stick with this number, or does the number of concerts change?

To be honest, the 31 concerts that first year became the minimum. At most, we did 36 concerts. We also run a year-long series, called The Four Seasons, which is now in its tenth year. Combining both, we are putting on 75 concerts altogether this year.

To which concert space do you flel closest?

I love all the venues of our festival--each has something unique about it. But if I were forced to mention some by name, it would be the oldest church in Ostrava, St. Wenceslas, the "deconsecrated" church of St. Wenceslas in Opava or the "crooked" church of St. Peter from Alcantara near Karvina, nicknamed "the Czech Pisa".

How do you secure funding for projects of this magnitude?

I am happy to say that since we started, we have built up respect and recognition and established ourselves as one of the most important music festivals in the Czech Republic. This way, we became true partners for the cities in which we present our concerts. Funding for projects like this one is never ideal, but I must admit that--especially in the last two years--the situation has improved considerably. A substantial part of the support comes from public funds. Among the most important, I'd like to name the City of Ostrava, the Moravian-Silesian Region and the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic. On the other hand, private support is very complicated, especially in our region, and I earnestly hope this situation will soon improve to the benefit of culture. We also mustn't fail to mention income from ticket sales, which rises each year thanks to the beautiful attendance at our concerts.

I noticed that you approach your work very personally; that you're not only an eminence gris in the background. Do you direct the programming, the selection of artists and spaces entirely on your own, or in collaboration with other musicians, musicologists...?

I consider the St. Wenceslas Music Festival another one of my "children". It's a project I dreamt up, and that's how I approach it and care for it. The preparation of the dramaturgy is a process of substantial duration that continually transforms. In the long term, I try to present little-performed repertoire and also progressively introduce the key works in this tradition. Due to the size of the festival, I also make use of recommendations from my friends; performers and musicologists. Sadly, I can't attend all of the concerts, as sometimes, we might have three concerts at the same time. When it's possible, however, I try to attend all of the festival concerts. Not only is this an enriching experience that fills me with energy, but it's also feedback and a certain satisfaction for my work. I also like to make use of the opportunity to meet the artists during their stay here. We regularly meet for dinner after the concert to converse on a variety of topics, which is always pleasant and interesting for both parties. Perhaps this is part of the reason why so many performers like to come back.

Did there ever come a time when you thought you'd have to stop the festival for whatever reason, or was there no such low moment?

There were of course a number of "moments" like that, but I am truly happy I always managed to overcome the various problems and continue in the work I began. Today, I am very fulfilled and enriched by this work.

You mentioned that the festival gradually presents the works for specific composers, introducing them to your listeners year after year. Which composers and works are they?

We have presented the complete sacred works of Antonin Dvorak, for example, as well as key works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Friedrich Handel or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Also Jan Dismas Zelenka, whose star has gone up in the last fifteen years, and whose music we can now compare with the oeuvre of J. S. Bach without any qualms. We are the only festival in the Czech Republic to present Zelenka's complete Psalmi Vespertini, performed by Ensemble Inegal and their artistic director Adam Viktora.

You want to present unknown sacred music from the Czech tradition, from all periods. What about contemporary music? Are you planning to commission a work or invite a composer to work as artist in resitknce?

We have presented pieces by contemporary composers several times, but to be honest, I think they are more suited to specialised festivals of contemporary music, and in our case, it was more about bringing greater diversity to the programming. Next year, we will present Martin Kumzak's oratorio St. Wenceslas, which was premiered in 2015, and Arvo Part's St.John Passion.

The qualities for the St. Wenceslas Music Festival include discovering new performers and the regular return of some artists. Which international performers did you discover, not just for Ostrava, but for the Czech Republic? And with which artists did you enter into closer collaboration?

I think "new faces" are absolutely essential. Every year, I try to bring new artists to the festival and I'm glad this has been the case thus far. Our festival was the first in the Moravian-Silesian Region to start introducing artists and ensembles specialising in historically informed performances of early music. If we stay in the Czech Republic, the most significant were--and in fact, still are--Collegium Marianum with Jana Semeradova and Collegium 1704 with Vaclav Luks. They are both resident ensembles at our festival. Among the soloi sts, I'd like to mention singers MartinaJankova, Hana Blazfkova, Marketa Cukrova and Tomas Kral. The Pavel Haas Qyartet is a chamber group that is among the world's very best, and they performed at our festival at least seven times. Conductor Jakub Hrusa is another strong artistic personality--he conducted Dvorak's Stabat Mater at the very first instalment of the festival. We have become friends since then, and I'm glad that he visits us quite often, as commitments allow. In 2018, he will conduct the opening concert, which will include Leos Janacek's Glagolitic Mass. As for international artists, I'll mention violinist Esther Yoo, harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, flautist and conductor Philippe Bernold or Israeli cellist Gavriel Lipkind, who is currently employed as visiting lecturer at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ostrava.

Another new name is the Ostrava Youth Orchestra, which first performed at the festival this autumn.

Yes. It is formed of students at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ostrava and Janacek's Conservatory in Ostrava, and was conducted by Paolo Gatto at the festival. Frankly, I was surprised by the artistic quality and the level of concentration in rehearsals and the concert itself, but also by their youthful energy and enthusiasm. Naturally, we are planning to develop this young orchestra's activities in the future, and I am sure it won't be long before we see them at another stage or festival in Ostrava.

You teach at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Ostrava. How do you combine the festival, where you also regularly perform, with your pedagogical activities?

That is of course a very complex matter. I consider myself more of a musician than a manager. Over the years, I had to teach myself to distinguish my priorities and also work on a system for my projects. Without organising myself well, it would be impossible to do this. And my performances at the St. Wenceslas Music Festival always arise from the individual projects. Not only do I admire and love chamber music, which is why I often perform in various chamber ensembles, I am also one of the few players in the Czech Republic to perform on historical clarinets, and the only one to play the chalumeau.

How did you start playing on historical instruments?

It was thanks to our festival, actually. I always admired musicians who performed on them--I was always captivated by the unusual sound of period instruments, as well as the entirely different approach to interpretation of music that is utterly exciting. Then, it was only a matter of time and luck, which I had right from my first meeting with instrument builder RudolfTutz in Innsbruck.

The flutist Barthold Kuijken's recital at this year's festival was dedicated to RudoifTutz, who passed away recently. How do you remember him?

Rudy--as those close to him called him--was an incredible person, with a capital "P". Not only was he one of the best makers of copies of historical wind instruments, he was also immensely smart and creative. Contact with the musicians for whom he was building the instruments was completely central to him. I am truly delighted that in the last ten years or so, I had the opportunity to visit Rudy in Innsbruck regularly and spend up to a few days on the instruments he made for me. I am the only player in the country who owns and performs on various kinds of chalumeau, baroque and classical-period clarinets made by Rudy. Every time I play his instruments, I realise what a great person he was. I'm very grateful to him for that, and I hope I can return it in my concerts.

What are you plannin for the next edition?

At least 35 concerts. We will commemo rate the anniversary of the death of Leos Janacek with his underperformed cantata Amarus followed by the Glagolitic Mass. Collegium 1704 are planning a big project with singer Magdalena Kozena, we' re pl anning a performance by the legendary Belgian ensemble Flanders Recorder Quartet th at will conclude their 35-year-long career. There will also be concerts by the Lviv-based vocal octet Orpheus, a screening of Saint Wenceslas, a silent film from 1929, accompanied by live music, a song recital by soprano Martina Jankova and harpsichordist Barbara Maria Willi and also my favourite, Dvorak's Stabat Mater.

Igor Frantiiak

studied at the conservatory in Ostrava in Valtr Vitek's clarinet class. He continued his studies with Vitek at the Faculty if Arts and Education at the University of Ostrava. In 2001, he received a government grant to study at the Norwegian Academy if Music, where he worked with Hans Christian Brtein. He also attended international performance courses and seminars led by important pedagogues such as Michel Arrignon, Eric Hoeprich, Charles Neidich, Christian Leitherer, Milan Etlik or Andrzej Janicki. He participated in a number if national and international competitions, receiving the 3rd prize in the Interpretation Competition in Chomutov and the Marco Fiorinda International Music Competition in Turin, where he also won the 1st prize for chamber music with Ensemble Moravia. As a soloist, he has performed with many Czech symphonic and chamber orchestras, such as the Janacek Philhannonic Ostrava, the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic or Czech Virtuosi, and internationally with Bohdan Warchal's Slovak Chamber Orchestra or the Kurpfalzisches Kammerorchester Mannheim. He also collaborates with leading Czech chamber groups such as the Pavel Haas, Bennewitz, Wihan and Skamp quartets. He is a founding member if the Stadler CLarinet Quartet, which has been performing for over twenty years. In recent years, he has also performed historical repertoire on chalumeau, baroque and classical clarinets. As a performer on these instruments, he has collaborated with the ensembles Collegium 1704, Collegium Marianum, Musica Florea, Ensemble Tourbillon or Ensemble Inegal. Since 2002, he is a co-organiser and teacher at the international performance courses in Ostrava. In addition to his concert activities, he is also a lecturer in clarinet at the Faculty of Arts if the University if Ostrava. Igor Frantiiak is an official player if the French company Buffet Crampon and US-based D'Addario Woodwinds.

by Dina Snejdarovd
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Title Annotation:czech music
Author:Snejdarovd, Dina
Publication:Czech Music
Article Type:Interview
Date:Oct 1, 2017
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