All Five Senses In Bratislava

Reduta and the Slovak Philharmonic

January 17, 2011

Allan Stevo

Last Saturday, I attended a concert given by the Slovak Philharmonic.  A little out of character, they performed pieces from Indiana Jones films, The Pirates of the Caribbean films, and the Harry Potter films.

Listening to the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra play has always been a highlight of my time spent in Slovakia and this day was no different.  As a child I never imagined how many people in cooperation it took to play the anthem of adventure that is Indiana Jones’s theme music.

The event was intended for families with young children
I hadn’t realize that the event was targeted toward kids, until I had bought the tickets and read the words “Children’s Event” printed on them in Slovak.  Nonetheless, I could think of dozens of adult friends of mine who would want to sit and listen to these songs.  Someone at the Slovak Philharmonic had evidently realized that live performances of songs from popular movie scores is a way to draw an adult as well as a child into a lifelong appreciation of the symphony.

On stage alongside the conductor was an actor (who doubled as a mime) emceeing the event and explaining to the audience (composed mostly of kids under 10 and their parents) what was about to happen.  He offered a few jokes and a few practical hints as well, such as teaching the kids when to clap, or how to say conductor in Slovak (dirigent), and demonstrating how important songs were for creating emotion in movies.

It was fun watching the children, and it was fun being in the presence of the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra without the stuffiness that that usually brings, a stuffiness that in honesty I tend to appreciate.  The stuffiness was broken by the actor on stage.  It was broken by his antics and jokes and wittily presented facts about symphony performances.  In the back row of the 50 or 60 musicians on stage, it was broken by the one trombonist wearing his Indiana Jones-style brown fedora.  It was broken by the occasional exuberant call of a child to his or her mother with some overly exuberantly presented piece of information about their surroundings.  It was broken by the kids in front of me shifting in their seats and at random leaping into mom’s arms for a hug or reaching over her to have a one-on-one three-year-old-younger-brother-and-five-year-old-big-sister discussion.  This was often followed by a hug, and perhaps even a kiss between the two siblings.  Yes, the stuffiness was broken, but the magic of the event was not and it was a magic that clearly awed the children watching.

This was Indiana Jones
The Raiders of the Lost Ark (Indiana Jones) was released in 1981, when the Cold War was still very alive and active.  When my friends’ families got a VCR

and when my family got a VCR, those movies grew into some of the most cherished films of my childhood.  It was a part of the 1980’s for me and for many my age. It was adventure around the world; it was about a clever man, a studied man, a man who was a “good guy.”

The character was a hero of my generation as we grew up.  Through his adventures, through the adventures that millions of American children roll-played after watching him, we could see the world, in a clear black and white – those who helped the American were good, those who opposed him were the bad guys.  Never would we children question if his pursuit was a just pursuit.  That he was one of us was enough for him to be a good guy.  There were the good guys and there were the bad guys and of course there were the really bad guys – locked away in the evil empire, waiting to destroy the West.

How could I ever imagine I’d be deep in that evil empire one day listening to scores from Indiana Jones.  It’s music that screams adventure.

How would I ever have known that this evil empire even had a tradition of orchestra?  I knew that in Chicago, and in other cities around the U.S. there was a tradition of orchestra, but Czechoslovakia was a place so distant from there.  Before stepping foot on Slovak soil, I had no clue what the place might look like, and definitely did not have enough knowledge about the place to have a thought like “I wonder how nicely done their concert hall is?”

There was so much energy in hearing this anthem played live.  And while it does not happen as regularly as it used to in Slovakia, it made me pause, look at my surroundings, and pinch myself.  I live the life I always wanted – I’m a writer, a traveler, in a foreign land, and today, I’m listening to an anthem of my childhood being performed in Slovakia by this fantastic orchestra.

When I First Came to Slovakia
Within days of my arrival in Slovakia, eight years ago, I was told that for $50 I could get a season pass to the symphony and sit in the best seats in the house.  I thought back to the wisdom of Loyola University law professor George Anastaplo, which went something like this: “At all times in your life, no matter where you are, always have a subscription to the symphony. You will grow from it.”

When I first read those words from him, I did not know what they meant, but I filed them away as wise advice that would one day need to be followed, and Slovakia provided such a convenient excuse for signing up and continuing to sign up for a membership to the symphony year after year – the experience is majestic.

So much of my writing has been done with the rhythm of orchestra in the background, each Thursday or Friday from October to June in Bratislava’sReduta, as I sat near the front of the room and quietly wrote in a book that I carried with me for just that purpose. I’ve heard Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Smetana, Dvorak, Shostakovich, Prokovfiev, and Tchaikovsky played live at the home of the Slovak Philharmonic, the Reduta.

All week, I would work for 2 or 3 dollars an hour teaching. Then on Thursday night, I would dress up in my best and find myself surrounded by Bratislava’s classical music lovers. Vienna’s classical music lovers would come too, because coming to Bratislava on a tour bus, walking the city, and attending the concert was still cheaper than the price of a ticket at the Vienna Philharmonic.  With the money earned from one hour of work, would a lowly and hardworking teacher be able to buy fifth-row symphony ticket at home?  I always wondered that to myself, but have never dug deep enough to confirm my answer with certainty.  Perhaps somewhere in the U.S. it might be possible.

Engaging in this ritual of classic music is natural for this part of the world—a style of music hundreds of years old from a time when Vienna was the capital of the world and Bratislava the coronation city of Hungary.  Its roots are in an even older tradition of humans making music with each other.  Making music together brings us together.  Shared experience brings us together and makes us feel a sense of community.  It is human to want to voluntarily team up with others and to cooperate in our shared interest.  The orchestra is an extension of this humanness of ours.

But I have not explain the majesty of the night, because while the music was pleasant, it was truly the majestic feel of the whole experience that got me hooked and kept me returning.  I felt like a Hapsburg to walk intothis 18th century building.  Yes, I feel like royalty to have a symphony played for me, such a beautiful symphony, in a concert hall so beautiful.

The organ pipes as a backdrop to the musicians, the chairs that the audience sits in – their wood arm rests and soft rich red fabric covering the seats. The seats are even a little hard and upright, perfect for the slight uptightness of the act of watching a symphony – “do not slouch, do not fall asleep,” these chairs tell you.  These are not the disgustingly cushy brown chairs that have come to fill so many concert halls and theaters of the world over the last few decades – as if the communist nations and non-communist nations could only find one chair designer and one chair supplier.  No, these are deep red, wooden, firm, regal.   Every detail of the Reduta, right down to the seats, so perfectly done. Even the light bulbs – a rich incandescence, burning hot and warm like a candle, not fluorescent and cold.  The light in the Reduta always has a natural, pleasant-to-the-eye color to it.  Its floors are parquet. The box seats hanging off walls to the side, sharing its bird’s-eye view with the night’s VIPs, the simplicity of the balcony, the champagne at intermission, the unwritten agreement that everyone will have dressed nicely in their finest clothes. Even its very high ceilings that give one the feel that the music is flying freely, unencumbered, in the air above. Here we begin to scratch the surface of the majesty.

Somehow, Socialist Realism, and its tacky successors, were not able to influence the design of this room.  The room could only have come from a historian who loved a time before his birth.  There are no IKEA or Made in China stickers in this room.  There’s no plastic in sight.  Wood, velvet, gold leaf, plaster is what the world around me looks like in this room as musicians, who have trained for as many as 50 years, play for me musical combinations invented long ago and not so far away by Slavs, by Germans, by the great composers of the world.  This music is Central European (and maybe a littleEastern European as well.)

And in the days when I was still teaching, after an hour and a half or two hours, the performance would come to an end and my date and I, or I alone, with my journal, would make a stop before walking back across the New Bridge to Petrzalka.  We would stop at Café Mayer for a black espresso and a petit four. These are things I would never touch otherwise, but they became my ritual each time I heard a concert at the Reduta.  I would walk down the street and bask in the glory of the aged architecture of the Old Town, and turn into the café to enjoy the rich desserts of another century in a café from another century, perched there on the Main Square.  Thursday nights were gifts from another century that made life in the present century even more enjoyable.

I was ignorant in my assumption
How could one even assume that this place, Bratislava, Slovakia, or Czechoslovakia did not have the great and beautiful music of the past?  It was simply ignorant of me.  My assumptions probably had something to do with the regime being ugly and functionalist.  And I don’t mean functional, or functioning, because that is something the past regime wasn’t.  But like the architectural style in which the buildings of Petrzalka were built, perhaps I could call the regime functionalist, which I define as “no love of beauty, but single-mindedly obedient to the idea that the ends justify the means.”

I’d never seen a photo of Petrzalka before coming to Slovakia, but the feeling of a place like Petrzalka – the idea that Petrzalka is an acceptable place to spend a lifetime – the inhumanity of it, that was a feeling that I knew from the Communist regime.  I wouldn’t learn until high school that the inhumanity was something forced upon people in the name of improving people’s lives.

Certain brutal aspects of the regime made it across the Atlantic more easily than the existence of something as beautiful as the Reduta, so I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on myself for not envisioning that a thousand people gather to regularly hear the great composers of the past performed live in Bratislava.

Vienna plays very prominently as a gathering place for classical musicians, and one does not have to look far to see that Bratislava benefited from its proximity to Vienna by having great musicians pass through town. Bratislava (formerly Pressburg in German or Pozsony in Hungarian) also had great musicians come from in and around the city.

Liszt was from Sopron County near present-day Bratislava. Liszt played in Bratislava and traveled the region performing.
Bartok’s mother came from Upper Hungary – present day Slovakia and, as a composer, loved collecting Slovak and other regional folk music as an inspiration to his own music.
Mahler was German-speaking of Jewish descent, from the present-day Czech Republic. He traveled through Austria and Hungary.
Hayden was born a half hour drive from presentday Bratislava in Rohrau, Austria. He left his parents and moved to nearby Hainburg, Austria at the age of six and later lived and performing throughout the region as he followed the Esterhazy family.
Hummel was born in Bratislava and lived here before going on to live with and study under Mozart, eventually making it big time.
Beethoven and Motzart spent much time in nearby Vienna.
Smetana or Dvorak are well respected Czech composers that are well regarded around the world.
So, as a child I should have felt some pride for the roots that classical music had in the region instead I only saw “Eastern Europe” as a rough and oppressed place.

In all honesty however, when you look at how communism treated the arts, I was not far from off with my ignorant assumption. They did not like art for art’s sake.  They liked only art that upheld the ideals of communism. They did not like art that sought to uncover a truth.  They only liked art that sought to show that Communism’s was the only truth.  And I say “they” as if communists thought in one monolithic blob, because officially, they did.

The Clap in Unison
An interesting aspect of cultural performances in Slovakia comes at the end.  You need to be sitting in an audience or on stage to truly appreciate it.  But even after witnessing it, it promises to continue to astound over and over again – the clap in unison.  It is common at a Slovak cultural event, provided that the crowd is large enough, and the applause vigorous enough, that everyone in the crowd will begin to clap in unison, rhythmically, virtually every person in an auditorium of 500 or 1,000 people all, spontaneously breaking into a clap in unison.

I can’t even begin to imagine the logistics of how such a clap in unison could be orchestrated by any one person, but the clap in unison takes place nonetheless.  Hundreds of individuals, each clapping at his or her own rhythm, and many clapping with no rhythm at all, suddenly, spontaneously break into a clap in unison.  It comes from all parts of the room and suddenly, you too find yourself either discontinuing your claps, because you feel weird being a part of it, or you join the clap in unison.

Even if you don’t care for classical music, the clap in unison is reason enough to go to watch the Slovak Philharmonic perform on a Thursday or Friday night, because it is likely that there will be enough people there and that the performers will have done a good enough job to have earned a vigorous applause, an applause vigorous enough to call for an encore, and there, magically, it will appear – the clap in unison.

Mention this to a Slovak and he will likely not know what you are speaking of.  It is simply how people clap.  Mention in to a performer who’s toured the big concert halls of the region and he will know what you mean.

The homeless Slovak Philharmonic
There have long been plans for the “Reduta,” the beautiful home of the Slovak Philharmonic, to be renovated.  In the musical community in Bratislava, it is said that a government inspector came along and decided to close the Reduta several years ahead of schedule by declaring it structurally unsound.

In Chicago parlance, that means the inspector was playing hard to get until he was given his appropriate bribe, so he closes down the theater so that he will have time for further reconsideration.  I don’t know if it works that way in Slovakia.  I suppose I’d be naïve to think that it doesn’t at least some of the time.  The Slovak Philharmonic was promptly moved from its home at the Reduta. It now temporarily resides at the less attractive, but still pretty Historical Building of the Slovak National Theater a.k.a. “the Opera.”

The Historical Building of the Slovak National Theater occupies such a central place in the city.  The very heart of the city, in many ways, is not the city hall, not a place of business, not the open air markets, not the Presidential Palace or the Parliament, not some embassy, not McDonald’s, it’s not a bank, not astreet, not even a square, the center of Bratislava for many, is this very building – the Opera House, the center of culture.

The Reduta is off to the side, on the same square not very special from the outside, out of the way, nowhere important, even hard to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for.  It’s a former granary (a storehouse for threshed grain) built in the reign of Maria Theresa, who loved her dear Bratislava so.

So Indiana Jones was not played in all the majesty that it could have been.  I suppose it could have felt even more fantastic to hear it hosted at the now closed-down Reduta, but instead was performed in the Opera House, which coincidentally did get a communist era makeover, or was at least remodeled by someone who was taught that the trends of “communist chic” were cool.

The façade on the front of the building outside looks aged and pleasant to the eye, the façade on the back of the building makes you thankful that at least the front of the building was spared – it’s an unplesast, monentarily trendy, grey stone façade that hangs off of the back end of the Opera House. Inside the snack bar, the lounges, the hallways, their furniture all look like they came from a time of momentarily poor taste, something contradictory to playing an opera that has remained popular for a few hundred years.  Hundreds of years from now, perhaps the same classical music will be lauded along with others that have become exhaulted as great, and perhaps we will look back at the communist period as a brief hiccup in history, a thought made apparent when some of the design changes are juxtaposed with some of the music. In the main chamber, the brown upholstery on each chair, the horrific giant glass orb hanging from the ceiling that probably replaced some beautiful chandelier – they rob the Opera House of some of its dignity – thank goodness there’s no concrete in sight from the perspective of the audience.  But the balconies, the box seats, the proscenium, the orchestra pit all remain, waiting for some future designer to return this house to a state of period splendor.

The opera house is a place to take a nap in the brown overly cloyingly comfortable seats, the Reduta is a place where the music of the past comes alive.

Don’t Pick on the Reduta Just because you have Money
And with the Reduta scheduled to re-open in the fall, I quite regularly hope that the old fashioned pieces that made the Reduta so special to me – from its creaky chairs to it incandescent lighting – are not removed.  I’ve read that the organ will be replaced – a trend in Bratislava, where “Euro funds” and westerners send money that is used to mindlessly replace antiques instead of restoring them.  These allegedly useless antique pieces will be sent to some small town where they will be used for at least another 100 years.

I’ve read that the Norwegian government is helping to fund the reconstruction of the Reduta – 85% of the bill will be paid for by the goodpeople of Norway – according to the Slovak Philharmonic. The Norwegian government prides itself on its greenness.  Could it be possible that the Norwegian government will insist on “green” lighting?  Will the warm glow of the concert hall be sacrificed for the sake of the environment?

For that matter, there’s nothing green about the Reduta’s ceilings that rise 80 feet.  A room that size uses lots of energy to heat, which is bad for the environment.  Perhaps the ceilings should be lowered to 40 feet, or maybe even 8 feet as high ceilings are bad for the environment.  The concert hall exists as a testament to beauty, the redundancy of an orchestra exists as a testament to beauty.  It is not functionalist.  It’s the opposite.  It doesn’t exist for a clear purpose aside from making music.  Will functionalism be brought through the door of the Reduta under the name of environmentalism?

Foreign aid encourages the implementation of ridiculous plans that locals could never have been convinced to fund.  Will the Norwegian central planners of the present be able to succeed to interfere where the Czechoslovak central planners of the past failed?  Will the old character of the Reduta interior be replaced with something momentarily trendy?  I hope not.  I’m overly paranoid about such things.  It always gets me a little nervous when someone decides to “help” improve something that is so close to perfection.

I do hope that the Reduta, a gem from the past, when it reopens looks much like it did when it closed two years ago.  But this is a concern of mine, because so many Slovaks have such a hard time seeing what is beautiful about their country.  So many have such a hard time seeing beauty in that which is unique about Slovakia.  And the most sycophantic pro-Western/pro-Russian/pro-foreign/pro-anyone-who’s-not-Slovak lapdogs seem to be those who sit in positions of authority.  Recent well-done renovations around town, such as the newly renovated castle, make me feel more hopeful about the outcome of the Reduta renovation.

Still, the desire to be like someone else is so strong here.  How tiring it can get to constantly have to point out beauty to people who do not see beauty in themselves.  So much about this place is fantastic and it might be nice to hear more Slovaks agree with me on that.

***The essay was getting long, so I divided it into two parts.  Part II of this piece, is now published below.***

Allan Stevo is a writer living and working in Bratislava, Slovakia.

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  • I had no idea they were renovating the Reduta; seeing those “in-progress” photos is a bit scary, I’ll join you in patiently hoping for the best.

    A timely article for me, as only yesterday I listened to Dvorak No. 9 (First published as No. 5) by the Slovak Philharmonic. I’m fairly certain that it was a coincidence that it was they who recorded it, I was just in the market for Dvorak.

    The other coincidence is that I just came across this photo the other day, and was thinking about the Reduta; the very first picture I took on my return trip to Bratislava was inside that building. A very good start.

  • Dear Joel,
    That’s a great photo : ) Thank you for sharing it. Those are two nice coincidences. Thank you for joining me in hoping for the best about the Reduta. I trust that the builders know what they are doing and the Reduta will go back to looking exactly as it once did. There seems to be a significant chance that it won’t look the same.
    Wishing you well, dear Joel.

  • Yes, Allan, we Americans live by the myth of our enviability, which throws into even greater relief the Slovak “Greener Grass” paradigm (which I wrote about in an old blog that you may have read once upon a time, but that I include here as a link in case you haven’t):

    Ciao, a dufam, ze mozeme sa stretnut v Marci.

  • Mark,
    Thank you for placing the link here. Fantastic article. This is definitely a very common trend. Thank you for identifying it and naming it. : )

  • Allan, thank you for sharing your Slovak experiences. Love the pig kill story, which is an old one in my Slovak family too, practiced in Vojvodina and in Canada for centuries.

    I also wanted to add to this story that Beethoven’s best friend, Zmeskall, was a Slovak living near Dolny Kubin, and he spent many holidays there with him (and my family).



  • Tonya,
    Wow!! What a cool story about Beethoven and Zmeskall. Thank you for sharing that. I definitely like the quote “Your appetite for food reflects your appetite for life.” : ) I have been to Lestiny a number of times and have passed through dozens more. The wooden church there is secluded a beautiful. My grandfather was from a village just down the road. That roast and stuffed ox recipe is intense. Thank you again.

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