Long-running festival brings Easter sacred music to Brno churches

Church of the Assumption of Our Lady in Brno, photo: Ben Skála, Benfoto, CC BY-SA 3.0

Each year, the Brno Philharmonic invites music lovers as well as those who want to reflect on the spiritual dimension of Easter to embark on a musical journey through the Moravian capital. The annual Easter Festival of Sacred Music, which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary, takes place over the two sacred weeks of Easter and its programme is determined by the liturgy for the festival of Easter. The concerts are situated in various venues around the city of Brno.

Marie Kučerová,  photo: archive of Brno Philharmonic
I spoke to the head of Brno Philharmonic, Marie Kučerová and I first asked her to tell me more about the history of the event:

“The festival began thanks to the initiative of Professor Petr Fiala, the famous chorus master of the Czech Philharmonic Choir in Brno, and the agency Ars Concerts. After twenty years, the city of Brno decided to put it in charge of Brno Philharmonic and this year we are producing the festival for the fifth time. It is an annual festival and this year celebrates already its 25th anniversary.”

What can we imagine under the term ‘Easter music’?

“Actually, the title of the festival expresses quite precisely the content and this content is quite special and specific. The only other festival of such focus in Central Europe is in Krakow and Vienna.

“The concerts are spread over the two sacred weeks of Easter; one week before, and one week after. The programme is made especially for the specific dates and they are located in specific venues of the Brno churches.”

Is there a lot to choose from in terms of Easter music. How difficult is to put the programme together?

“Actually, the repertoire and the choice are immense, because Easter is the highest Christian holidays and has been for its whole history. So we can chose from medieval music, from Renaissance, From Baroque, from the classical and moderns music and from contemporary music.

“So there is really a lot to choose from and even a lot to discover, not only the premieres but also modern premieres. So we really have no reason to worry about not having enough to perform.”

Every year the festival has a unique theme. What is it this year?

“The annual themes were proposed by our programme director, musicologist Vladimír Maňas. In the past we had for instance the themes of travelling to the East and to the West, and this year we are heading back home, so to speak, so the main theme this year is ‘shelter’ or ‘sanctuary’. We will be discovering a lot of Czech music and performing Czech and Moravian music from the Medieval times to the present period.”

Among the compositions on the programme will be some rarely heard works by Czech composer Miloslav Kabeláč. Can you tell me more about him?

“Miloslav Kabeláč is definitely one of greatest name of Czech composition school of the second part of the past century. Unfortunately he is not that well-known, not even in the Czech Republic, but I am absolutely sure he has the same value as Antonín Dvořák had in the previous century.

“So we are trying to provide a lot of space to this composer, who had a very difficult life during the Nazi and the Communist times and who died in the 1970s. We put on his pieces not only during the year, within our abonnement series, but also on the programme of the festival. One of the pieces by Miloslav Kabeláč, the Seventh Symphony for orchestra and reciter, will open this year’s Festival of Sacred Music.”

Can you tell me more about the opening night?

“The opening of the festival will consist of various works by Czech 20th century composers. So there will be not only Miloslav Kabeláč, but also Luboš Fišer with the composition Crux for violin, timpani and bells, and Wooden Christ by Jan Hanuš. The Wooden Christ is also the title for the opening concert.

“So the opening concert will be quite unusual, offering modern Czech sacred music and combining big orchestra, the Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava with chief conductor Heiko Mathias Förster, with violinist Milan Palla, percussionist Milan Opršál, reciter Přemysl Bureš, baritone Ivan Kusnjer, so it will be very intense and very interesting combination of sounds.”

And here is a sample of the fascinating song cycle Wooden Christ, written by Jan Hanuš and performed by the Prague Symphony Orchestra, with bass solo Karel Průša:

A number of Czech premieres took place at the Easter Festival of Sacred Music over the course of its existence, among them sacred works by Wolfgang Rihm or Salvatore Sciarrino. What do you have in stock for this year?

“There will be a few Czech premieres as well as so-called modern premieres, that means pieces written during the Baroque era or in the early 18th century, which have never been performed in the past two centuries.

“One such composition is a beautiful oratorio for soloist, choir and orchestra by Franz Xaver Richter, again a Czech composer, called ‘La deposizione dalla croce di Gesú Cristo’ or ‘the Descent from the Cross’, and that’s a so-called modern premiere, because it really hasn’t been performed in over 200 years. It will be performed by The Czech Ensemble Baroque Choir and soloists and it will be also broadcast by the Czech Radio and by the EBU network.”

Other Czech composers to be heard include Jan Dismas Zelenka, one of the most important personalities of Baroque music, contemporary of Johan Sebastian Bach…

“Zelenka is definitely the greatest name of Czech baroque music. He is quite well-known already thanks to a number of initiatives of Czech baroque ensembles, for instance Václav Lux and his Collegium 1704 and so on. A lot of recordings have been released in the Czech Republic, Germany, France and elsewhere.

“We are preparing quite special meeting with Jan Dismas Zelenka. We are introducing his complete responsories and lamentations written for the holy week. We will introduce them on Wednesday, on Thursday and the holy Friday within the so-called late-night concerts called ‘Tenebrae’, which means dark meetings.

“It is an old Church tradition for these days to really meditate, calm down and contemplate the death of Jesus Christ and these compositions are written for these special days. So there will be three late night concerts, illuminated only by candles. These concerts are traditionally very well attended and very well accepted.”

Now we are going to hear one of Jan Dismas Zelenka’s responsories, Responsoria for Holy Saturday, featuring Chamber Orchestra Gaudium Pragense, conducted by Lukáš Hurník.

Jan Dismas Zelenka
The sound of the various concerts of the Easter Festival of Sacred Music will be determined not only by the performers, but also by the acoustic, architecture and history of each particular church, where the concerts will take place. Marie Kučerová again:

“As I said we are performing the concerts in various churches all over the city. There will be altogether nine concerts and five venues. We are going to the old Gothic basilica in the old city of Brno with the music of medieval France Aquitain, the Antiphonary of Eliška Rejška, which is really something very special. It will be performed by the French all-female choir Discantus.

“We go through different baroque churches in the centre of the city, to the Petrov cathedral, combining Gothic and Baroque styles, and we will end in a modern functionalist church of St Augustin in the modern Masaryk quarter, so we have really chosen very special venues for each concert.”

Among the venues is the Church of the Assumption of Our Lady, which features new concert organ. Can you tell me more about the instrument?

“Absolutely. This is one of the most beautiful early baroque churches in the centre of the city. Unfortunately the original organ was destroyed during the war and since then, there was no proper instrument. So there was a big initiative by the Church representative and a new organ was manufactured by the excellent Swiss factory called Mathis.

“There was a huge public collection for the new organ and there was also a big support from the city and the EU. So at the moment the Church and the city have probably the most modern instrument in the whole of the Czech Republic and they are ready to perform not only baroque music, but also 19th century music, big romantic pieces and contemporary pieces. So it really is an excellent instrument and we are happy that we can use it.”

So will the organ be heard during your festival?

“Yes, that will again be a very special concert. And we will introduce a famous piece by Czech composer Petr Eben ‘The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart’ with organist Irena Chřibková and the composer’s son, Marek Eben, as the reciter.”

Is the festival intended for wider public or is it aimed mostly at music experts?

Church of the Assumption of Our Lady in Brno,  photo: Ben Skála,  Benfoto,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“I don’t think so. There are of course a lot of historians, music experts, musicians, who want to listen to that very special music, but generally we are very open to anybody. Of course there is a substantial part of Christian believers, who attend the concerts to get another dimension of the spiritual period of the Easter time.

“But there is also a lot of young people, a lot of students from Brno universities and we really are happy to see mostly young people for instance for the late night concerts. The Churches are full and most of the concerts are sold-out, so we are really happy.”