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Golden Mountain Chamber Academy: An International, Intergenerational Festival of Chamber Music

Musicians from the United States, Czech Republic, England and Korea gathered in Zlate Hory, a remote corner of the Czech Republic, to make music and build bridges across cultures. As a parent of one of the piano students, I got to tag along for the first of two two-week sessions held in the summer of 2004.

The youngest participant was 14; the oldest over 70. Two of the American students have been refugees: One from the Chinese revolution in the 1940s, the other from the Soviet repression after Prague Spring in 1968. In duets, trios, quartets, and a ten-member orchestra, this small group of intergenerational and extremely talented violinists, violists, cellists and pianists handled complex pieces by the likes of Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, and Czech hero Dvorak, as well as the informal world premiere of a string trio by student Henry Sheng. Faculty concerts not only featured well-known composers, but also two pieces by the program's co-founder, Roman Placek.

Placek and his wife and co-founder, 30-year-old violinist Edita Blaskova, make their home in Massachusetts during the academic year and both speak fluent English. At the public concerts—three by the five American and Czech faculty, one by the students, some of whom perform frequently at home—all the announcements are delivered in both Czech and English. Some of the participants study with the faculty members in the US; others found the group on the Internet or through word of mouth.

Says Placek, "We were trying to create a program in which we could bring together our American friends, American students, and our Czech musical and cultural heritage—to create a bridge between the two nations, communication by means of music."

Placek, a 32-year-old cellist with a booming voice and quick wit, is a native of Jesenik, a few kilometers down the road. Blaskova grew up about three blocks from the Academy's newly-renovated quarters; this group of students is the first to use the gleaming new space (once her family's farmhouse and stable). The building had been seized during Communist rule; repatriated in 1993 after the Velvet Revolution, it has been turned into three studios, a recital hall, and various nooks and crannies where string players carve out places to practice.

How did these two young musicians, who met on a bus between the Czech music conservatory they both attended and their homes, start such an ambitious program? Placek explained: "Everybody in the family was considering what to do" with the repatriated house. "It was too big for one family, and not suitable to break up for more families. And the reconstruction would cost way too much. Edita was the last kid, and they asked, would you like the house. When we entered, we saw a music school in it. We saw classrooms, an entrance hall, a meeting place. So we were inspired by the house.

The program started in 2002 in rented rooms. The 2003 festival was cancelled because of the Iraq war, so 2004 was the first time in the historic home.

Blaskova continued the chronology: "We went to study in the US in 1995. We saw it as an opportunity to work on our skills, to make new contacts, and to start bridging Zlate Hory with the world. Then we were invited to be part of a trio in residence at UMass Amherst, where we began working on our Master's degrees. We both graduated in 2001.

Fixing the house, noted Placek, was a long-term project. "We were absolutely unable to secure funds at first, even though the town government gave us 200,000 Czech crowns. It was just enough to secure blueprints, get locks, and keep the house from falling apart completely. After we left for the United States, we also had to secure funds for our studies. We played fundraising concerts, and then we were fully funded and paid at UMass, and we were able to flirt with the idea of starting the reconstruction. But there were practical things that stood in the way. But in 2003, we met a mason who was able to secure a strong crew, and we were brave, and we got a line of credit. This year we were able to put together the first stage. Our main goal for this year was to make sure the first floor was going to be done, that we would be able to welcome the second year. Two years ago, there was no real concert hall in Zlate Hory. We had to use a former gym, which was acoustically very challenging."

Placek and Blaskova have a strong vision for the future; they hope to grow Golden Mountain into one of the premier chamber programs in Europe—"a sought-after, high-standards music festival and summer school, where people will be happy to come back, and will seek the time here, and we'll have great musicians to play at the concerts, so people feel welcome and that the time will be spent to their complete satisfaction. It depends on the participants whether it's summer school and festival or festival and summer school. We will have guests and tourists later on, as well as the students. Both are important.". Placek continued, "We will always concentrate on chamber music. Some musicians come to concentrate on their instruments, but we do place them in groups so they can 'cross the border.' We've even set up an organization called Music Without Borders

And music is only one of the arts that will find a home in this new cultural center. "The house has been designed so its space can be used for different functions, not just music but as a gallery. The walls are very attractive. We hope this house will become a cultural center. Musicians own it, but we won't discriminate against any form of art. We feel that integration of multiple arts is very important for the development of any artist's specific direction. Visual art, creative writing—the current exhibit features Karel Haruda, an artist whose paintings are greatly influenced by music."

The town's name, Zlate Hory, translates literally as Golden Mountains; gold has been mined here since at least the 13th century (see related story about Zlate Hory and Jesenik on Global Travel Review).Participants also have plenty of time to explore the town, and participate in several field trips. In this session, the group went to a gold mill, a Renaissance town, across the border to Poland, and to the beautiful spa above Jesenik.

Participants had nothing but praise for the program. Henry Sheng, a pianist with over 50 years experience, lives in Claremont, California, USA and teaches engineering at the University of California/Riverside. He attends a different music institute every summer and has performed as a concerto pianist with his university's symphony. He discovered Golden Mountain in Piano International, a newsletter from Scotland. "I don't have people to play with at home, and I also had my composition that I wanted performed. It was a surprise that I learned so much. Jon Verbalis, the piano instructor, opened up a new dimension for me, emphasizing the fourth and fifth finger, using the shoulder to control it, rather than elbows. Every finger and joint is being used fully. I met Peter here; it's the first time I've ever accompanied a cellist. The piece, Homage, by Demus, has a beautiful haunting melody." For Sheng, "two weeks is not enough." He returned for the second session, with a different piano instructor, Eugenie Malek, and a new goal: "I would like to play that concerto again with the chamber orchestra in the next session."

Five participants were teenagers, including 18-year-old cellist Seth Branum, of Virginia Water, UK. Brannum will attend Ohio University in the fall, where he plans to study music therapy. How did he choose Golden Mountain? "I was looking to improve my solo repertoire and my skills as a soloist, in addition to learning some chamber music. I have very little experience with chamber music, and I heard this was an atmosphere that was fun and noncompetitive, a great learning experience."

The program surpassed Brannum's expectations. "My technique has improved profoundly. What I hadn't learned in eight years of technique was taught to me in a week here. And the physiology of playing class every morning has made me aware of what muscles I don't need to use, so, as Roman would say, I release my muscles rather than relax. Chamber is great fun. You get to interact with other people from other countries. You don't know your ensemble members and you just bond together. You learn exercises to focus your mind on the music, on aspects of rhythm, counting, cooperation with other people—and that's so important in ensemble work." Coached by viola master Chris Borg, a former soloist at the Spoleto Festival, Brannum played Dvorak's American Quartet, among other works.

Another cellist, Lisa Sutton, 55, a psychologist and social worker from Brookline, MA, US, had a better idea of what awaited her. "I'm Roman's student. My knowledge of the high quality of Roman and Edita's teaching attracted me. My playing has gotten better. I've learned a lot about playing with others, about playing Baroque music. And I've really enjoyed the international and intergenerational aspects." One of Sutton's pieces during the program was a Brahams duet with a 16-year-old pianist from her own state of Massachusetts; they traveled 5000 miles to play together.

Related Article: Music in the Middle of Nowhere: Two Weeks in Zlate Hory, Czech Republic

For more information about Golden Mountain's programs in Amherst and Boston, Massachusetts during the school year, or the summer academy in the Czech Republic, please visit www.gmcema.com

Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Arts Review, is author of The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, a 280-page e-book on how to have fun cheaply.


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