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Czech Chambers

The Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival features two never-heard-before compositions.

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Please forgive Peter Rejto if he seems a little nervous. It's crunch-time for the artistic director of the Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival. He's got programs over eight days to watch over, including two premieres--commissioned compositions that have never been played before.

Seeing as the musicians have not played the compositions before--make that no musicians have played the compositions before--there's a great deal of mystery involved.

"Hopefully, they received the music in advance, and learned their individual parts before they showed up in Tucson," Rejto said. "This only gives us a few days for what can be a potentially tough composition to put together. This is both exciting and scary."

Czech composers created both of the pieces, giving this March 2-9 festival--the 10th such event--something of an unofficial Czech theme. On March 5, the Prazak String Quartet, along with pianist Ewa Kupiec, will debut the composition by Jiri Gemrot. During the final concert on March 9, the quintet of harp and strings will premiere the other composition, by Sylvie Bodorova.

The Arizona Friends of Chamber Music, which sponsors the festival, claims to have one of the most active commissioning programs in the country. Rejto said the commissioning process goes like this: The festival offers an ensemble or individual performer the opportunity to choose a composer to write a piece. In the case of the Gemrot premiere, for example, the festival approached the Prazak String Quartet several years ago with the offer; the group chose Gemrot to write the piece, paid for by AFCM.

Rejto said composer fees run about $1,000 per minute of music. While he could not recall how much AFCM paid for this year's compositions, he said they try to limit the cost to $13,000 per piece and keep them under 15 minutes.

"Sometimes, the composer will end up writing a longer piece, because they feel that's how the music has to be," he said.

With any piece of new music, there are bound to be kinks to work out and minor changes to be made. And even though Rejto said problems have been few and far between at past festivals--events that have been met with widespread acclaim (so much so that a 13-part series of festival performance broadcasts is being produced for public radio)--the whole process still puts him on edge.

"I am always nervous something is going to go wrong," he said. "So many things are coming together--rehearsal time, coordinating all the groups and musicians. ... Will everyone show up and stay healthy? Health is one of the toughest things about a festival like this."

Putting on a much calmer face is Jean-Paul Bierny, the AFCM president. He dismissed any concerns about the premieres, pointing out that the composers will be present to solve any problems. He also stressed that the premieres are just part of the eight-day event.

"There's a lot on our program that's tried and true," he said. "The first piece of the program (on March 2) is Schubert's Shepherd on the Rock. It's a famous and beloved piece. All of this is extremely easy for the audience to absorb."

Beyond the five concerts (each with a pre-concert commentary a half-hour before the start time), there are a number of special events that Bierny is enthused about, many of which are intended to bring chamber music to a broader audience. Two master classes on March 8 for students at the UA School of Music--featuring the harp with Katerina Englichova and the viola with Paul Coletti--are open to the public, free of charge.

"They are wonderful spectacles," said Bierny, explaining that the interaction between student and teacher can be "fascinating."

There are also dress rehearsals--also free and open to the public--each performance day from 9 a.m. to noon. The same musicians will perform the same pieces in concerts for school kids, something Bierny said the musicians enjoy.

"They know that's the future audience," he said.

And the future of the Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival appears to be looking bright. Rejto said he's already finished the 2004 festival schedule; it will feature more French and British works.

The nervous yet in-control Rejto said he's proud of both this year's and next year's lineups.

"I'm extremely happy with the group of artists," he said. "It's always nice when things fall into place."

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