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Mixed Company is written by Saint Paul Sunday staff, giving you a behind-the-scenes look at the show and the classical music they love. We welcome your online comments.

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September 7, 2006

Sui Generis

Listening to this week's program, some lines from Norman Maclean's beautiful flyfishing memoir A River Runs Through It improbably came to mind—lines about beer, of all things, and how it used to be that each of the small cities of a certain size in Maclean's and my home state brewed its own kind:

You could leave beer to cool in the river, and it would be so cold when you got back it wouldn't foam much. It would be a beer made in the next town if the town were ten thousand or over. So it was either Kessler Beer made in Helena or Highlander Beer made in Missoula that we left to cool in the Blackfoot River. What a wonderful world it was once when all the beer was not made in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, or St. Louis.

Although this ensemble's music making is every bit as delicious as an icy beer after a day of fishing mountain waters (the very waters that go into the beer), I'm sure the first connection my mind made here was to Maclean's laconic way of cherishing the vernacular—those local, homemade chords that anchored his world at that time, and his rueful awareness of their passing.

In our pitilessly generic culture, the singular sound and complexion of the Czech Nonet is, to me, sheer respite. Its history, now something of a legend in chamber music circles, began almost accidentally when in the years after World War I a group of students at the Prague Conservatory got together to perform a work by Louis Spohr, which called for its particular blend of instruments. In the 82 years since, the nonet has inspired numerous composers to write for them, in part because they needed music! Probably the most famous of these is Bohuslav Martinů, whose expansive and similarly individual music we hear on this program.

Yet it's not just the group's instrumentation that stirs such rare colors into life, it's also a tone of voice, the specifically Czech accent and approach of its individual players, who still largely hail from the Prague Conservatory. The effect isn't the same even when equally accomplished artists of other traditions join forces for the same music, wonderful as those collaborations themselves can be. When the Czech Nonet plays, it draws us into a time and a world still wholly its own.

Posted by Vaughn Ormseth at September 7, 2006 11:51 AM



We loved the show. What surprised me as an amateur French horn player was that the group sounded like a mini symphony only freer and bigger, even, than an orchestra. My fiancee and I met 3 years ago in the Czech republic and we also really enjoyed the accents of the musicians along with their incredible playing. She's how I first started listening when we were grad students at OSU/columbus. thx, Erik Mason

By Erik at February 12, 2006 6:38 PM


I loved Sunday's program with the Czech Nonet, and loved your claiming Dvorak as an American composer. In Iowa we claim him as an Iowan! He spent a summer in the town of Spillville,Iowa, where he was organist at St. Wenceslaus Church. Spillville still has a significant Czech population and one can buy delicious homemade kolaches there.

By Ruth Anne at February 14, 2006 4:31 PM


Erik & Ruth Anne,
Thank you for listening and writing...please check in again!

Erik, I agree with you -- there's something about the nonet's instrumentation that feels more spacious than even larger ensembles', and its unusual sound is quite evocative.

Ruth Anne, We know about Spillville, its delicious kolaches, and St. Wenceslaus Church! In 1993 we did a wonderful program honoring the hundredth anniversary of Dvořák's summer sojourn there. As part of it we recorded soprano Christine Brewer, organist Bill Kuhlman, and the Takacs String Quartet all at St. Wenceslaus Church. Bill also recorded the sounds of the Turkey River, on whose banks he heard the scarlet tanager song that inspired part of the "American" quartet, as well as Minnehaha Falls (in Minneapolis), where he was first heard the melody of his beloved violin sonatina. It was the beginning of my own lasting affection for Dvořák's music.

By Vaughn Ormseth at February 14, 2006 5:25 PM


Though I live in a large city, I will likely never get to hear this group. It's just one of the many programs we've heard thanks to Saint Paul Sunday, which because of never ending home renovation projects I haven't missed since Christmas. What a run you're having! Bill, thank you for your guests and comments over the radio and in your blogs. We share your admiration for Norman Maclean, another great adopted Chicagoan, and especially Saint Paul's Sunday.

By Nate at February 16, 2006 9:54 AM


After trying to play the 9-net from the computer a couple weeks in a row, I finally puzzled it together. Worth it!! they sound nearly as good as the radio visit. We're big St Paul Sunday morning fans. When ever we can my husband and I and sometimes our h.s. aged daughter plan Sundays around it. Now we read your journal too which adds so much. Please keep it up!

By Hilary Morris at March 14, 2006 10:56 AM


Any chance that you could play more original programs? Looking back from 9/9 (today) over the last three or four months I find nothing that hasn't been aired at least twice.

By laura Saunders at September 9, 2006 5:57 PM


Dear Ms. Saunders,
Thanks so much for writing. Summertime is usually when we air especially good (and frequently favorite) past programs, most which the majority of listeners will be hearing for the first time. Now that autumn's underway, though, you'll be hearing a lot of wonderful new programs.

By Vaughn Ormseth at September 28, 2006 4:14 PM