Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Jaroslav Ježek

The Jaroslav Ježek exhibition at the Music Museum has ended, and I was just able to get myself there on Sunday (I always mean to get to museums on Sundays, but it happens rather seldom).
I had been looking forward to the Ježek exhibition ever since November or so--well, whenever I became aware of its existence. I'm very fond of Ježek, whose recordings all seemed to go out of print just before I became aware of his work. One summer I spent a good deal of time going into various purveyors of CDs and inquiring (the first few times) where they kept their Ježek CDs and (subsequently) whether by any chance they had any at all. Since Ježek is a national favorite, it seemed bizarre that one could not acquire CDs of his music, even if he is not quite as known to foreigners as Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček, or even Martinů. Anyhow, eventually I did come up with a compilation CD that included one of his more classical works, and I have acquired almost the full set of Voskovec and Werich CDs, which include many of the pieces he wrote for the Liberated Theater.
When I met Jesse, I discovered that he was also a devotée of Ježek, so we made a pilgrimage to the Ježek museum, which is only open Tuesday afternoons. While perhaps not the most exciting museum in the world, we quite enjoyed seeing where the composer used to live and looking at his bookshelves.
I had high hopes, then, for the Ježek exhibition, especially since its being up for five months must mean that it was expected to bring in a lot of traffic.
Or maybe the Národní muzeum's music branch just doesn't expect droves of people for anything and isn't going to have more than two or three exhibitions a year. It is a nice museum in many ways, fairly newly opened, and when Jesse and I checked out the general collection, we were pleased with the numerous opportunities to listen to examples of different instruments and types of music through headphones, although I thought that the museum could have supplied places to sit while listening to all these examples.
All the same, the museum tends to be strangely visual for a newly designed music museum. This was particularly noticeable at the Ježek show. Apart from a two-hour film (Tři Stražnice) that was mainly about Voskovec and Werich, I didn't encounter any musical examples of Ježek's work. There were lots of interesting displays of certificates, photos, identity cards, postcards, and sheet music covers, but although these were pleasant to look at and even included English translations for the wall text, if one didn't already know what kind of music Ježek wrote, it seemed that one was not likely to get any clear idea of it here beyond that much of it was in a popular idiom.
It's true that this may have been affected by the fact that on Sunday afternoon the museum held a concert of music by Ježek and Šlitr, so things may have been a little abnormal in the exhibition itself. Basically, I watched the film for two hours, then the concert began and I listened to that, after which there was no music.
The concert, I must say, was rather disappointing. This was not the fault of the performers, who did a good job and were extremely well received by the audience. However, the sound quality was very poor. I was unsure whether this was due to the acoustics of the building (a former palace, it has a lot of marble and plaster and doesn't seem likely to be acoustically ideal) or whether the group simply didn't need microphones. The general effect was as that of a piano played with the damper pedal eternally depressed, except that a damper pedal only affects the piano it is attached to, not an entire ensemble with two vocalists. The lively type of music chosen by the group would have benefitted most from great clarity and no echoes.
I must admit, furthermore, that there seemed to be very little Ježek on the program. If there were more than two or three Ježek numbers in the mix, they were well camouflaged by a more Šlítr-like style. And, while I recognize that Jiří Šlitr is one of the most beloved popular Czech songwriters of the past fifty years, I can't say that I am that fond of his style. This is nothing personal, I just don't tend to like post-1950 jazz, cabaret, and show tunes. The only mid-twentieth century music I can really take for long is rock in its various forms (although from time to time--for example on road trips when all I can get is an Oldies station--I find bouncy pop songs, especially those with particularly inane lyrics, amusing).
Anyhow, following the concert, everyone returned to looking at the Ježek displays, which made me sorry I hadn't looked at them more carefully when no one else was there blocking the view. I considered returning the next day to get a better look, but concluded that I had really pretty much seen everything and that the same general information is available to me within the purview of my research on Toyen.
The museum, I think, could really stand to beef up its merchandise section. While some museums really go too far in the direction of becoming sellers of miscellaneous over-priced consumer goods that sometimes have only a peripheral connection to the museum itself, the offerings here are really minimal. During the film, someone asked the guard whether it was possible to buy a copy of it. She had no idea, and I saw no sign of any films for sale. The film was really good, and I too would have been interested in getting a copy. This would also have been a perfect opportunity to offer a nice selection of CDs of Ježek's compositions of both the jazz and classical varieties. However, the items for sale are few and you have to ask to look at them, which inhibits all but the most serious potential buyers.
Oh well. I hope that the exhibition was well-attended during its run, but despite the English wall text, I would be surprised if it got any foreign visitors hooked on Ježek.

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