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Five musical days in Košice, capital of culture

Visitors to Košice, Slovakia’s second largest city, must be struck by the aerial-view postcards: a reddish-tan gothic cathedral rises in the middle of a town center shaped like female genitalia. The fertility symbol is appropriate given the steady stream of weddings the church hosts on Saturdays. It is also an apt metaphor for the cultural fruitfulness of Košice, which has received the honor of “European Capital of Culture,” along with Marseille, France, for the year 2013.

Košice skyline - with Cathedral

Košice skyline - with Cathedral

This East Slovak city’s character is not quite Western, not quite Byzantine, not quite medieval, not quite modern. The St. Elizabeth Cathedral is the eastern-most gothic cathedral in the world; one can thus see it as representing an eastward projection of Roman Catholicism. The city is also home to Greek Catholics (who use an Orthodox-like liturgy) and smaller numbers of Eastern Orthodox. While it lacks the “Byzantine” architecture one finds a little farther eastward in Ukraine, many of the modern structures outside the city center look more “Soviet” than one would find in Prague or East Berlin. Košice retains a mix of nationalities appropriate for the old Austro-Hungarian Empire: the sizeable Hungarian minority has a Hungarian-language theater named “Thália,” and the numerous Roma, or Gypsies, also have their theater called “Romathan.”

I lived in this strange but lively city during the last of my six years in Slovakia in the 1990s. I was also privileged to sing with the Choir of St. Cecilia (patroness of musicians), whose semi-professional membership has earned accolades all over Europe. It was with heavy heart that I left to pursue graduate school in 1997, but I’ve been returning every couple of years since. On this trip, I’m determined to dig deeper into the town’s musical heritage, largely with the help of Viliam Gurbaľ, cathedral organist and Cecilia director.

Friday afternoon and evening

Vilo, transcribing

Vilo, transcribing

I arrive by train and trudge to the town center to meet Vilo, as Viliam is affectionately known. In his early forties, tallish and thin, he constantly holds a cell phone to his ear. Although I’m fluent in Slovak, I can barely catch enough snippets of his rapid conversation to figure out he’s coordinating meetings and performances.

Vilo takes my heavier bag and we wind down an S-shaped side street to the conservatory, where he’s found me lodgings for this sojourn. He grasps the black iron handle on the ten-foot wooden door, swings it open and leads me up an almost palatial double stairwell lined with composites of graduating classes going back to the 1950s. As we climb three flights, we pass by practice rooms emanating trumpet blasts, the somber tones of a bassoon and a Liszt piano composition.

After settling in, I head for practice with the Cecilia chorus, taking a narrow street to the “Slovak Catholic Youth Circle.” The entranceway was built for horse and coach; on the second floor, the tall, pale yellow doors open into a hall with a chandelier hanging from an arched ceiling and four rows of flimsy wooden chairs arranged around a well worn parquet floor. The mix of elegance and austerity is common among church properties restored since the fall of Communism, due to a lack of financing to restore long-neglected structures.

The group focuses on three pieces for a concert on Sunday; two of them are by Franz Xaver Zomb, a composer unknown to me. One of them, “Regina coeli,” begins with a joyful forte. We run through the opening three times, barely enough for me to catch on, and we skip a number of bars for soloists. We pick up with a slower minor segment: “Christus resurrexit” (“Christ is risen”), after which the tempo builds. Vilo spreads his arms wide as we move through forte into fortissimo. Then he brings his hands downwards and together, calling for restraint, as we shrink back to piano. And the volume rises again through the “Allelujahs” which define the second half of the two-and-a-half minute composition. Although it’s straightforward material, I still don’t feel that I own the piece. Furthermore, we are practicing without the string accompaniment that is written for it, but that doesn’t bother the regular Cecilia members, many of whom are conservatory students and graduates, and a few of whom sing in the chorus of Košice’s State Theater.

After practice, a dozen of us hang out in side rooms which serve as music library and workshop. A clavinet stands covered in black cloth topped by several stacks of sheet music in European-type folders bound with brown string. A contrabass leans against a bookcase with yet more sheet music. In one corner, a trapezoidal wooden case with the area of a desktop leans on edge against the wall. The instrument is familiar to East-Central Europeans as the cimbal (or cimbalom in Hungarian). This five-octave hammer dulcimer resembles a piano or harpsichord with lid removed and is played by striking the wires and coils with two sticks resembling giant cotton swabs.

“Could I get four guys to carry the cimbal down?” asks Vilo. I join three other male singers in lugging the cimbal; we and the instrument together look like a monstrous crab scampering downstairs. We deposit the box in Vilo’s hatchback in the courtyard.

“Are you playing with your usual ensemble?” I ask him.

“No, I’m helping out some young Gypsies tonight.”

After dinner with other choir members, I find Vilo in the smoky basement establishment where he is performing with a violinist, a violist and a bassist. I join the owner in the main room, and during the breaks, the Gypsy musicians join us at the table. I never get the chance to ask Vilo what he’s doing. The stand-up bass player, Julius, is the son of Julius Balogh, a Roma cimbal player I used to hang out with when he and his brother Peter played at a local hotel in the nineties. The elder Julius, I learn, has recently passed on, but the younger, a conservatory graduate, is obviously continuing the family profession.

But Vilo spends every spare minute in a cubby hole off from the dining room, pecking away at his laptop while referring to a stack of old sheet music, and the others keep me so engaged in conversation I never get to ask what he’s doing.

Saturday afternoon and evening

On this drizzly afternoon, I sit enjoying a cappuccino and an apple strudel in the “Aida” café, not far from the cathedral. Outside, a cameraman crouches along, trying not to shake while keeping up with the bride and groom ahead of him. Viliam appears at the door, grabs a coffee, and sits down across from me.

“Sorry, I’ve only got a couple minutes,” he says. “I’m playing a wedding.”

“You mean a wedding ceremony or a wedding reception?”

“Actually, both, I’m just taking a quick break in between. Tomorrow, meet us at the back entrance to the theater for our rehearsal at three.” He gulps down his last mouthful of java and rushes off to his next engagement.

I’m left alone to finish my coffee and pastry at a leisurely pace and stare out the window at the St. Elizabeth’s and the State Theater. The latter building is a 1906 construction: atop its cream-colored façade, the multi-level domes and arches of its copper roof cascade down from a central cupola.

Next, I wander along Hlavná ulica (“Main Street”), the elongated oval running north to south in the heart of town, wishing I had time to explore all the wine cellars, restaurants along the main thoroughfare and the numerous alleys radiating from it. I come upon some Gypsies busking in an archway. Their scruffy appearance belies their musicianship—they execute refined violin techniques and complex guitar chords with ease.

I have been fascinated by Gypsy music since my first year in Slovakia, when I saw the musical Gypsies go to Heaven, based on a tale by Soviet author Maxim Gorky. In that theater adaptation, Gorky’s themes of freedom, longing and tragedy are accompanied by violins and voices alternately weeping and rejoicing with melodies so sweet and infectious they make you want to sell all your earthly possessions and travel around the Carpathian Mountains in a covered wagon. No wonder the Gypsies’ reputation for playing enchanting music – along with a nasty old stereotype about their stealing children – gave rise to the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamlin.

Hearing the piper’s call again, I stroll to the “Karczma Mlyn” (Polish for “Mill Tavern”), a subterranean restaurant just off the “Korzo,” as locals call the main drag. Wagon wheels, heavy wooden flails and other implements line the barrel-vault brick walls. The sanded – but unfinished – tabletops were apparently cut directly from tree trunks. A dozen guests sit around one such table topped with bouquets of flowers and a bottle of Finlandia vodka on ice—apparently celebrating a birthday. At one end of the cellar, four musicians stand around a twenty-something Roma playing a cimbal solo. By the breakneck finale, his “cotton swabs” appear as blurry white arcs bouncing off the strings, and the crowd applauds as the other instrumentalists join in.

I order dinner and slip over to the musicians’ table during their break, introducing myself as a friend of Vilo Gurbaľ and Peter Balogh. When I tell them I’m an American (I speak Slovak the whole time), they pelt me with questions about average salaries and rent in the States. I obligingly answer but finally change the subject by asking, “What’s the name of your group?”

I have to ask them to write it: Bokhale Muja—“Merry Boys” in Romani, the language of the Gypsies. (They’re pulling my leg, it turns out—bokhale muja is a Romani expression meaning “hungry faces.”) During their next set, they showcase their abilities by rotating instruments, as I work on my “tinker’s sack,” a pork filet stuffed with kielbasa and breading.

I depart from the Karczma Mlyn with a busted gut. It’s approaching midnight, but on May 15, Košice, is keeping its museums open late. Patrons wander about casually, there is no entrance fee, and beverages are allowed everywhere except in the graphic arts galleries.

After perusing the second-floor display of modern creations by award-winning Polish, Romanian and Hungarian artists, I gravitate to the sound of jazz. I enter a hall with a balcony supported by Corinthian columns with gilded capitals. Named the “Historical Hall,” its ceiling displays the coats of arms of every geo-political entity Košice has belonged to: Slovakia, Czechoslovakia, Austria-Hungary, and some regional affiliations. Four guys, average age 20, play keyboards, drums, an electric guitar with a slew of effects pedals, and a five-string bass. They breeze through “Light My Fire,” a complex jazz piece, and a blues number.

Sated with food and culture, I return to the conservatory. My feet echo in the emptiness of the dark staircase. Climbing the three stories is the last bit of exertion needed to launch me into a deep sleep.

Sunday afternoon

I join the Cecilia choir backstage in the theater, as they prepare for a televised event with the theme “Together, Dialogue, Tolerance.”

“You’re gonna sing with us, aren’t you?” Vilo asks.

“Vilo, I really don’t know your recent repertoire well enough. Besides, I don’t have a tux.”

I settle for the role of sheet music collator and hang out in the dressing rooms, helping the Cecilians straighten out their music and their bow ties just before their entrance. Then I’m left in the hall guarding cell phones and overcoats.

As I wait in the wings, the group sings Handel’s “Allelujah Chorus” and “Cantate Deo.” Then comes Franz Xaver Zomb’s “Regina Coeli” and “Ave Regina Coelorum.” Cecilia is performing with the State Filharmonic Orchestra, at last giving me the chance to here the full arrangement. I am struck by the subtlety of the strings, how they complement the vocal parts, expecially in the “resurrexit” section.

I’m more anxious than ever to learn more about Zomb, but Vilo and his soprano soloist wife, Julia, have to rush off after the concert to pick up their newborn from the grandparents.

Monday afternoon

Peter Balogh, the Gypsy violinist I used to hang out with, takes me to El Cubano restaurant, whose walls of ocean blue and a white ceiling emanate an airy Caribbean feel. We recall the old days when he and Julius, Sr. played the Hotel Centrum, but our discussion quickly turns from musical reminiscences to the upcoming elections.

“I’ve seen that Slovak National Party billboard,” I tell him.

He knows the one: a photo of a bareback, tattooed Gypsy surrounded by alcohol containers on the shelves inside a sordid dwelling, all above the caption, “Let’s not feed those who don’t want to work.”

“Yeah,” Peter says, “they think only Slovaks are human, not Roma, not Hungarians, not Germans.”

As we finish our food and drinks, I gingerly ask Peter for a favor: “Could you take me up to Luník IX?”

Lunik IX, a housing project built in the 1960s, has the reputation as the largest Roma ghetto in the world. “I’d really like to see what it’s like there, uh, take pictures and document it.”

“Sure,” Peter says, much more readily than I was expecting, “let’s go.”

We climb into his white Ford station wagon and head for the southwest part of town, whining along in low gear up a steep grade. As we approach the blood-red concrete high rises, Peter tells me “Get your camera ready.” Peter’s a relatively wealthy Roma, and despite his initial enthusiasm I now detect his apprehension at taking a non-Roma into the housing project. As we pull into the main driveway, children play soccer, oblivious to the scattered garbage and glass. There is not a single pane left in the windows along the stairwell. Children as young as four, unattended by adults, climb out and sit with their legs dangling from the tin roof hanging over the entranceway of the nearest block of flats. A sixtyish man hails Peter and chats with him briefly in Romani. When they finish, Peter tells me to step out and take my pictures quickly. I rapid-fire my shutter in several directions. “Okay, that’s enough,” says Peter after eight shots, and I clamber back in. “People are starting to notice us,” he says, pulling away.

Peter stresses to me that there are practicing professionals among this minority, and I promise to seek Roma success stories to write about. But until the world changes considerably, I fear, music will continue to be their best ticket out of poverty.

Tuesday evening

I finally get a chance to sit down and talk with Vilo in his family’s Communist-era flat. We sit at a table for two in the kitchenette. We can hear the baby crying through the glass door at Vilo’s elbow, as his wife Julia tries to put her to sleep in the dwelling’s lone bedroom. I ask Vilo for a corkscrew and open a bottle of Southwest Slovak “Green Weltliner”, a gift to me from Šaňo, the Gypsy violinist who first introduced me to Vilo back in 1996. (The two had their own cimbal group twenty years ago when they served in the army together.)

Mid-way through the first glass of wine, I finally ask: “So, tell me about this mysterious Zomb and his relevance to the ‘Capital of Culture’.”

“The city hall collected about 300 proposals for cultural projects for Košice’s entry into the competition. Mine had to do with Zomb.”

“So what exactly was your project?”

“Basically, to transcribe and record Zomb’s works. We’ve found 104, and thus far, I’ve transcribed about a third of them.” I know part of the story already: for nearly twenty years, Vilo has been transcribing material from the city archives, namely sheet music confiscated from the cathedral’s parish archives during the Communist era. He has to “borrow” the material, because for bureaucratic reasons it is unlikely to be returned soon.

“And that’s what you were working on Friday night between sets?”

“Yeah, the original score has each vocal part on a separate page. I use a program called ‘Sibelius’ to line up the entire four-part harmony together on a single page.” Of course, the two-hundred-year-old pages can only take so much handling, so his new transcriptions are then printed out and distributed to the musicians.

The Zomb project is not all Viliam’s work. “Mária Potemrová,” he continues, “a former teacher at the conservatory, first found his works in the archive in the 1990s. Zomb was an early eighteenth-century music teacher, and much of his music is relatively simple—no doubt for his students. But many of the first violin parts are of virtuoso quality, and those he apparently wrote for himself. Thus far we’ve found 104 of his compositions, and a good number are high-quality baroque pieces just now coming to light. We – that is the Cecilia chorus – also work with Marek Štrincl, a baroque expert from Prague, who helps us reproduce more faithfully the style of that time period.”

I pour the last glass of wine and we drink to the success of his project. I say goodbye, as I’m leaving in the morning.

As I walk home alone to my accommodations in the conservatory, I can’t help but think: Vilo’s project was only one of three hundred submitted for the competition! How many other Vilo Gurbal’s are there in this “Capital of Culture”?

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