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Tomas Svoboda’s Symphony #2: A love story in four movements

By Brett Campbell
November 10, 2016
Featured, Music, Visual Art

First movement. It begins gently, then the music accelerates, swerves through several tight turns, propelled by percussion. Pastoral flute turns whimsical, as low strings gradually and ominously arrive like storm clouds shading the sun. Suddenly, all the strings march in an implacable one-two meter, like an invading army, louder and louder. Big low brass notes reinforce the advance guard. Calm briefly returns, swept in on a light breeze of wind instruments, a brief respite before the low strings gradually surge, and all the instruments erupt, loud and fast, until the movement races to an abrupt halt.

Music brought them together. Jana Demartini was a 22-year-old folk dancer who met Tomas Svoboda when the 22-year-old percussionist joined their Prague folk music group in 1961. He and some other friends were sitting on the landing of a palace when he saw the troupe of women, bedecked in traditional costumes, climbing the stairs toward them, on their way to a performance. “And Tom was looking at me,” she remembers. “He was almost childlike: when he looked, he looked. I think that purity drew me to him.”

After a long period of getting to know each other, he offered to accompany her home from the school where she taught art and Russian. “We rode the tram and got off in front of our house, and he kissed me,” Demartini recalls, “and ran off!”

As their romance gradually blossomed, Svoboda began working on his second symphony, which Portland Youth Philharmonic premieres in Portland this Saturday — more than half a century after he wrote it.

Second movement. Slowly, quietly, the strings lay down a soft cushion beneath the concertmaster’s simple, graceful, achingly tender violin solo. Another violin joins and they engage in a lyrical duet, then a viola joins and three string instruments converse with a trio of wind instruments. Suddenly, the mood darkens again, dissonant chords growing louder and more threatening. A repeated horn note, low drumbeat, then the beautiful violin returns, more wistful now, troubled by an undercurrent of turbulent low strings.

War Meets Girl

Svoboda says his Symphony #2 is about two things: “love and war.” When he began writing it in his hometown of Prague in 1962 and ’63, Czechoslovakia trembled under an oppressive Stalinist dictatorship: purges, show trials, constant secret police surveillance. Propaganda blared that war with the West was imminent.

Svoboda and Demartini in younger days.

Svoboda and Demartini in younger days.

“And then,” Svoboda remembers, “there was the girl.”

The threat of war and hope of love he was experiencing simultaneously emerged in the notes.

“Tom was always very shy,” Demartini explains. “He sublimates his emotions. He’s communicating with music what other people communicate with words. He started writing the piece under the threat of war, and then he fell in love with this young girl. So when he was finishing it, he was worried for her safety.”

He had reason to worry. Svoboda’s father Antonin, a prominent scientist who’d created the country’s first computer, escaped the country with Tomas and his mother during a vacation to Yugoslavia. The embarrassed government canceled the planned 1964 premiere of his son’s symphony. They interrogated Demartini, who played the abandoned girlfriend to avoid being implicated. She sought asylum in Vienna herself the next year, with help from Svoboda’s father.

“We are lucky that we were not suspected or caught,” Svoboda says. “It was really dangerous.”

Third movement. Violins play a nervous repeated figure that keeps popping up in other instruments. Winds and low strings battle, each firing phrases at each other till they coalesce into a brash, brass-led march. Quiet returns except for a lonely oboe, with strings jittering that opening figure, which gains force and volume before morphing into the earlier march and ending in a big martial climax. 

Svoboda and Demartini at their wedding.

Svoboda and Demartini at their wedding.

In 1965, Demartini joined the Svobodas in Phoenix. Four years after they met, she and Tomas married there, amid the saguaro cactus, then moved to Los Angeles, where Svoboda earned his master’s degree at USC.

Partners in Art and Life

They’ve been together ever since: through Svoboda’s long teaching career at Portland State from 1970-2002, when he became known as one of Oregon’s finest composers, writing music for many Portland music institutions, performing as a pianist, and influencing several generations of musicians.

Demartini pursued her passion for art as a PSU student, becoming a printmaker and educator whose works have been exhibited often over the years at Portland’s Blackfish Gallery, including “Through the Darkness” in 2014, documenting their struggles in the wake of Svoboda’s stroke.

This month, the gallery hosts an intimate exhibit of her “Diary Pages”: watercolors, pencil and crayon drawings she created from 1967 through the 1980s during rare opportunities while she took on much of the responsibility for their home and raising their two children. “I had one really good drawing,” she recalls. “Tom is driving, holding on to the wheel in the car. They were visual notes to myself, a visual diary of our first years together.”

Drawing by Jana Demartini.

Drawing by Jana Demartini.

“How do you like this one?” she might ask him about one of her paintings or prints in progress. “Which sounds better,” he would ask her when composing, “this way or this way?” They were partners in art and life. “I think that’s why we’ve been together so long,” she says.

After Svoboda suffered the serious stroke that nearly killed him in 2012, “I turned into a professional fighter,” Demartini remembers, making tough decisions about his treatment and rehabilitation, contending with doctors whom she believed over-medicated him, devoting hours each exhausting day to caregiving and therapy as he slowly recovered. “She saved my life,” he says.

Fourth movement. After a quiet, tentative opening, the strings find an expansive tune, and the brass joins in to lead the entire orchestra into an exultant passage, like a lost traveler finally emerging from a dark forest to see his home in the distance. As the symphony’s end nears and the other instruments take their rest, flute and clarinet emerge to play a sweet, relieved duet. And then something strange happens.

‘A Great Discovery’

Portland Youth Philharmonic music director David Hattner learned about the lost symphony when premiering another, smaller Svoboda work last year. He calls the forty minute, four-movement symphony the “work of a master musician. Mr. Svoboda is an Oregon treasure. This is a great discovery.”

Composer and conductor at PYP rehearsal. Photo: Josh Espinoza.

Composer and conductor at PYP rehearsal. Photo: Josh Espinoza.

Orchestra and composer have a long history: Svoboda guest conducted it years ago, former music director Mei-Ann Chen premiered a shorter Svoboda orchestra work after that, and PYP’s chamber orchestra premiered a Concertino from the 1970s last year. Hattner, who conducts the premiere, hopes to make an all-Svoboda recording.

PYP devoted impressive commitment to the premiere, engaging Svoboda’s longtime publisher, Tom Stangeland, to help the composer prepare the symphony for performance, including incorporating earlier revisions Svoboda made in the 1980s, preparing orchestral parts, and so on. The young musicians received their parts in August, affording plenty of time for extensive rehearsal. Preview performances last month in Forest Grove and Corvallis that earned rapt audience attention and loud cheers and whistles.

Tom Stangeland, the Svoboda, Demartini, and PYP's 17-year-old Concertmaster Fumika Mizuno. Photo: Josh Espinoza.

Tom Stangeland, Svoboda, Demartini, and PYP’s 17-year-old concertmaster Fumika Mizuno. Photo: Josh Espinoza.

No wonder: after repeated listenings, it sounds like a lost mid-20th-century masterpiece, far more broadly accessible, beautiful and viscerally emotional than most orchestral music of the time. Even the composer himself choked up a little upon hearing PYP play the tender second movement at a rehearsal. He wasn’t the only one.

Closing the Circle

Love kept them together. At the Svobodas’ Southeast Portland cottage, they reminisce about the long journey from Prague to Portland that started with the symphony he wrote for her all those years ago, and that they’ll finally get to hear at Saturday’s official premiere.

Svoboda uses a wheelchair, no longer composes, and has difficulty speaking, but his mind is still astute enough to help with the revisions needed for this premiere, his eye sharp enough to follow the score and his ear able to detect problems during rehearsals this fall, his good hand still capable of playing melodies from its score on his piano at home, his memory of their half century long partnership still clear.

Svoboda regards Demartini, grins. “We had quite a story, you know?”

As the symphony’s end approaches, suddenly, out of nowhere, a piano — not heard at all until these final moments — begins to play quietly, a brief, repeated phrase, in duet with the lyrical violin, returning from the beguiling second movement. The other instruments fall silent, except for the violin, a few fading taps on the martial drum, and that piano, whose last two, quiet chords gently end the symphony.

Why did he include that odd, last-minute piano at the end?

”Because I wanted to have a different color,” he says, pointing to that final passage. “And I could play it.”

Demartini and Svoboda at their Portland home in October 2016.

Demartini and Svoboda at their Portland home in October 2016.

Demartini elaborates. “I felt that when the piano comes in, he wanted to say that there’s still that threatening drum in the background,” gradually retreating against the beauty of the violin and the piano. “But the piano is the voice of the creator, so he has the last say.” War threatens; love and music prevail.

As Svoboda tires, conversation ebbs. Demartini helps her husband move to the piano. He gently places the fingers of his one good hand on the keyboard, gazes at the score, and begins to play.

Portland Youth Philharmonic plays the world premiere of Tomáš Svoboda’s Symphony No. 2 and music by Bruch, Sarasate and Wagner at 7:30 pm Saturday, November 12, at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway. Tickets at 503-223-5939 and online. Jana Demartini’s “Diary Pages” continues at Portland’s Blackfish Gallery 420 N.W. Ninth Ave. 503-224-2634, through November. A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian/ O Live.

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